Peters v. WCAB (Cintas Corp), Decided 11/17/21
On November 17, 2021, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania addressed two issues never before decided by the highest Court of the Commonwealth;
- Is there a different burden of proof for traveling employees to establish they were in the course of employment at the time an injury occurred?
- Are injuries sustained while traveling to/from an employer-sponsored social event covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act?
The Commonwealth Court has addressed these issues many times, but the “Supreme” law of our Commonwealth derives from decisions issued by the Supreme Court. Adopting the Rule established by the Commonwealth Court in 1992 [Roman v. WCAB (Dep’t of Env. Res.) 616 A.2d 128 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1992)], and citing the humanitarian purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act – to protect injured workers – the Court noted that the terms of the Workers Compensation Act must be liberally construed to fulfill this purpose. Traveling employees are subjected to dangers not typically encountered by stationary employees. Therefore, the definition of when a traveling employee is “in the course of employment” requires broader context. The Rule established in Roman, and adopted by the Supreme Court, creates a rebuttable presumption in favor of a traveling employee, that once they set out on the employer’s business, they remain in the course of employment even during inconsequential departures from the trip (such as getting gas, food or lodging) until the trip has ended.
For the presumption to apply, the employee must establish they are, in fact, a traveling employee, and that they have set out on a trip to fulfill the employer’s affairs. At that point, the burden of proof shifts to the employer, to rebut (overcome) the presumption that the claimant is in the course of employment. The employer must present evidence (which the Judge finds credible) to establish the claimant took some action or detour from their route of travel that is wholly foreign to the nature of their work duties or from the employer’s affairs – that the action reflects the employee abandoned their work duties.
In Peters, the claimant passed the highway exit for his home, continuing his travel to an employer-sponsored, voluntary event. This gave rise to the second issue. There are a variety of Commonwealth Court decisions addressing injuries sustained at voluntary social events, sponsored by an employer. As with most issues, the Supreme Court of PA held that the specific facts of each case are determinative as to whether injuries suffered during such events are covered by workers’ compensation. Where an event furthers the business affairs of the employer, even if voluntary, the employee remains in the course of employment. Benefits to the employer may include meeting and socializing with prospective clients, vendors of the company or fostering potential business contacts. Even merely fostering camaraderie among employees benefits the employer, by promoting teamwork and efficiency during actual business affairs.
It is solely within the authority of the Workers’ Compensation Judge to determine what evidence is accepted as credible/true. The appeal court may not re-evaluate the credibility of the evidence. The evidence accepted by the Judge are ‘The Facts of the Case”. The conclusion to be drawn from those facts is a Question of Law – which may be reevaluated by the Appellate Courts. The Judge’s Decision must address all of the essential facts to enable the appellate court to fully evaluate the specific, unique circumstances of each case. It is the lawyer’s responsibility to present testimony and other evidence necessary to support the facts hoped to be found credible by the Judge.
Every injured worker NEEDS a lawyer who knows the law. Your lawyer MUST know each and every element that must be proven to support your claim. Missing one question, or failing to introduce a seemingly unimportant document can mean the difference between winning and losing. The field of Workers’ Compensation law is so complex that it is one of the very few areas of legal practice to offer a Specialist Certification for lawyers who have years of experience devoted to this single area of law and have passed written testing and other requirements. Every work injury lawyer at Schmidt, Kirifides & Rassias are CERTIFIED WORKERS’ COMPENSATION SPECIALISTS and have met the strict requirements established by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and PA Bar Association. For a FREE, no-obligation consultation, call us at 610-601-5399 or contact us online.