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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

NJ Supreme Court Reiterates the Liberal Application of Workers' Compensation Act in a Parking Lot Case

The NJ Supreme Court ruled that an employee’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment because the parking lot where she was injured was owned and maintained by the employer, adjacent to her place of work, and used by employers’ employees to park. The employee was therefore entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.


FACTS

Lapsley was employed by the Township as a librarian for the Sparta Public Library. The library is in a municipal complex with athletic fields, offices, and three common-use parking lots. The Township owns and maintains the parking lots, which are open to Township employees and the general public alike. The Township did not direct employees to park in the parking lots, assign parking spaces for employees, or require permits or paid parking. Nor did the Township restrict employees’ manner of traveling between the parking lots and the library.


On February 3, 2014, Lapsley’s husband arrived at the library to drive Lapsley home. As they walked from the library to the car through the parking lot, they were suddenly struck by a snowplow owned by the Township and operated by Paul Austin, a Township employee. As a result, Lapsley suffered injuries to her leg requiring multiple surgeries and leaving her permanently disfigured. Lapsley filed a complaint against defendants in the Law Division and, later, a claim for workers’ compensation benefits against the Township in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.


PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The Division found that Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment and were therefore compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding Lapsley’s injuries were not compensable under the Act. 466 N.J. Super. 160, 173 (App. Div. 2021). The Court granted defendants’ petitions for certification. 246 N.J. 448 (2021); 246 N.J. 450 (2021).


HELD 

Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment because the parking lot where she was injured was owned and maintained by the Township, adjacent to her place of work, and used by Township employees to park. Lapsley was therefore entitled to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act.


Humane Social Legislation

The Workers’ Compensation Act is humane social legislation that has always been construed and applied in light of its broad remedial objective. The Act authorizes workers’ compensation benefits to an employee injured in an “accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.” See N.J.S.A. 34:15-1. Aside from certain limited exceptions, the Act is the exclusive remedy for an employee who suffers a work-related injury. In determining whether an accident arises “out of and in the course of employment,” 


New Jersey courts apply the premises rule established by the Legislature in the 1979 amendments to the Act: “[e]mployment shall be deemed to commence when an employee arrives at the employer’s place of employment to report for work and shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’s place of employment, excluding areas not under the control of the employer.” N.J.S.A. 34:15-36. The Legislature used the phrase “excluding areas not under the control of the employer” in its definition of employment because it intended to include areas controlled by the employer within the definition.


Two Questions

To determine whether an injury is compensable, “[t]he pivotal questions under the premises rule are (1) where was the situs of the accident, and (2) did the employer have control of the property on which the accident occurred.” Kristiansen v. Morgan, 153 N.J. 298, 316-17 (1998). The meaning of “control” under the Act is more expansive than under formal property concepts. “[C]ontrol exists when the employer owns, maintains, or has exclusive use of the property.” Id. at 317. And “when compensability of an accident depends on control of the employer, that test is satisfied if the employer has the right of control; it is not necessary to establish that the employer actually exercised that right.” Brower v. ICT Grp., 164 N.J. 367, 372-73 (2000). The Court reviews examples from case law.


REASONING

Applying the premises rule here, the Court finds that Lapsley is entitled to compensation under the Act. The site of the accident was the parking lot adjacent to the library where Lapsley’s husband had parked; Lapsley stepped off the library curb directly into the parking lot before being injured there. The Township controlled that parking lot through its ownership and maintenance. See Kristiansen, 153 N.J. at 317. The parties do not dispute the Township’s ownership or maintenance. The Township’s plowing of the parking lot of snow when the accident occurred visibly demonstrated the Township’s exercise of control over the lot. See Brower, 164 N.J. at 372-73. Also, the Township would have been aware that a library employee would park in the lot directly abutting the library. This construction is consistent with the Act’s broad remedial objective.


The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES ALBIN, PATTERSON, SOLOMON, and PIERRE-LOUIS join in JUSTICE FERNANDEZ-VINA’s opinion.


Diane S. Lapsley v. Township of Sparta (A-68/69-20) (085422), 2022 WL 151632,  Decided January 18, 2022


Appearances

William G. Johnson argued the cause for appellants Paul Austin and Sparta Department of Public Works (Johnson & Johnson, attorneys; William G. Johnson, of counsel and on the briefs).


John R. Tort, Jr. argued the cause for appellants Township of Sparta and Sparta Public Library (Leitner, Tort, DeFazio & Brause, attorneys; John R. Tort, Jr., of counsel and on the briefs).


Christine M. McCarthy argued the cause for respondent (Einhorn, Barbarito, Frost & Botwinick, attorneys; Christine M. McCarthy, Christopher L. Musmanno, and Matheu D. Nunn, on the brief).


Analysis: The NJ Statute was recently amended, N.J.S.A. 34:15-36, S771, P.L. 2021, c. 334, expanding workers’ compensation coverage to parking areas provided by the employer. Effective, January 10, 2021. The law realigns the NJ Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) with present-day societal behavior concerning transportation and employee parking availability in the current employment market. Without even mentioning the statutory modification, the NJ Supreme Court has made a strong pronouncement that the WCA is to be liberally interpreted and broadly applied to provide benefits to injured workers.


Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L.,  NJ Supreme Court Reiterates the Liberal Application of Workers' Compensation Act in a Parking Lot Case, Workers' Compensation Blog Jan.  19, 2022), https://workers-compensation.blogspot.com/2021/12/parking-lot-cases-to-be-compensable.html


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Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters). For over 5 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman  1.973.696.7900  jon@gelmans.com  have been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.


Blog: Workers ' Compensation

Twitter: jongelman

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LinkedIn Group: Injured Workers Law & Advocacy Group

Author: "Workers' Compensation Law" Thomson-Reuters