Driving Employers Mad: Workers' Compensation Coverage for Traveling vs. Stationary Employees

The dreaded Monday morning commute…you were up late on Sunday after a busy weekend, you're crawling at a snail's pace along the highway, you're stressed that you won't get to work on time…most of us can relate.  But what happens if you're in an accident and injured while commuting to or from work?  Under the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act, the answer is: it depends.

While commuting to and from work is generally not considered to be within the course and scope of employment, there are exceptions.  Notably, Pennsylvania courts have long distinguished between workers with a "fixed place of employment" versus those who are "traveling" employees.  Traveling employees generally enjoy a much broader interpretation of what is considered within the course of their employment than their stationary counterparts.

In Peters v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Cintas Corporation), Claimant, Peters, was a traveling salesman who spent most of his time on the road meeting with various clients and customers.  One day after servicing his accounts, Peters decided to meet his co-workers at a local bar for happy hour.  In doing so, he bypassed the exit for his house and continued on to the gathering.  On his way home from the bar, Peters was injured in a car accident.  Peters filed a Claim Petition arguing that he was entitled to benefits because he is a traveling employee who was injured while coming from a company-sponsored event. Employer, Cintas, presented evidence that Peters could have ended his work day by going home, but instead abandoned his work duties when he chose to bypass his exit and drive to the bar.  Cintas prevailed and Claimant appealed.  Ultimately, the Court affirmed the lower court opinions.

The Court noted that a traveling employee is entitled to a presumption that he or she is in the course and scope of employment when traveling to or from work.  However, an Employer can rebut this presumption by showing that the Employee's actions at the time of the injury were €˜so foreign to and removed from' [his or her] usual employment that those actions constitute an abandonment of employment."  The Court reasoned that Peters could have avoided any hazards on his homeward trip simply by choosing to take his exit home as opposed to going to the bar.  Therefore, in bypassing his home exit which would have ended his homeward commute, Peters removed himself from his employment by choosing to go on to the bar.  The Court concluded that the happy hour was a voluntary, social gathering and did not serve to further the interests of the Employer.

However, the circumstances in Peters are not uniform and employers and insurers should be cognizant of the conditions in which traveling employees operate.  Consulting an attorney can help guide your business along the often windy road of workers' compensation law.