The NJ Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, held that an employee’s car accident occurred “in the course of employment” under N.J.S.A. 34:15-36’s “authorized vehicle rule” and is therefore compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act).
Above All Termite & Pest Control (Above All) employed Henry Keim as a salaried pest-control technician and provided him with an employer-authorized vehicle for work use. In compliance with company policy, Keim drove that vehicle in the morning from his own residence to various worksites and returned home in the same vehicle at the end of the workday.
Above All’s policy limited the quantity of supplies technicians could keep in their authorized vehicles overnight. When technicians needed to replenish supplies, Above All authorized them to drive their vehicles to Above All’s shop instead of driving directly to a worksite, to retrieve whatever they required, and then to go from the shop to the scheduled sites. On the morning of the accident, Keim clocked in, received his schedule, and concluded that his vehicle lacked sufficient supplies. On his way to the shop for supplies, Keim sustained injuries in a car accident.
The Judge of Compensation dismissed Keim’s claim petition with prejudice, concluding that Keim was merely commuting to work when he sustained injuries. The Appellate Division applied the “authorized vehicle rule” and reversed the dismissal order. The Court granted certification. 253 N.J. 289 (2023).
NJ SUPREME COURT HOLDS CASE COMPENSABLE
Keim was “in the course of employment” under the “authorized vehicle rule” at the time of the accident because Above All authorized a vehicle for him to operate and his operation of that identified vehicle was for business expressly authorized by Above All.
Prior to 1979, broad statutory language defined compensable accidents as those arising out of and in the course of the employment. To distinguish compensable from noncompensable incidents, the courts developed the going and coming rule, which ordinarily precluded an award of compensation benefits for injuries sustained during routine travel to and from an employee’s regular place of work. In 1979, the Legislature amended the Act by defining and limiting the scope of employment. Notably, the Legislature amended N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 to define when “employment” under the Act begins and ends each day.
THE “AUTHORIZED VEHICLE” RULE
As amended, N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 sets forth four distinct rules that govern when an employee is considered to be “in the course of employment” under the Act:
- the “premises rule”;
- the “special mission rule”;
- the “paid travel time rule; and
- the “authorized vehicle rule.”
That last rule provides that “the employment of . . . any employee who utilizes an employer authorized vehicle shall commence and terminate with the . . . authorized operation of a vehicle on business authorized by the employer.” N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 (emphases added).
The “authorized vehicle rule” does not apply every time an employee is driving a vehicle authorized by an employer. The rule does not categorically apply when an employee is merely commuting to work in either an authorized personal or work vehicle.
In this case, Keim argues that his injuries are compensable under the “authorized vehicle rule.” The word “authorized” separates actions that are unrelated to work and thus, not compensable, from actions that are related to work.
AUTHORIZATION AND IDENTIFICATION
Based on the plain language of the “authorized vehicle rule” in N.J.S.A. 34:15-36, an employee is “in the course of employment” when:
- the employer authorizes a vehicle for operation by the employee, and
- the employee’s operation of that identified vehicle is for business expressly authorized by the employer.
NOT MERELY COMMUTING
Under that rule, Keim was in the course of employment when he sustained injuries. Above All provided an authorized vehicle for operation by Keim. Keim’s operation of that vehicle to the shop on the morning of the car accident was solely for business expressly identified and authorized by Above All, namely, to replenish supplies. The permissive approach to replenishment taken here -- whereby employees determined for themselves whether and when to visit the shop on an as needed basis -- does not change the analysis under the language of the authorized vehicle rule. At the time of the accident, Keim was not “merely” commuting to work; rather, he was obtaining needed supplies at a non-worksite location as he was authorized to do by his employer. Because Keim’s injuries are compensable under the “authorized vehicle rule,” the Court does not consider whether any of the other rules established in N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 are applicable here.
The Court affirmed and remanded the case.
Jon L. Gelman of Wayne, NJ, is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman 1.973.696.7900 firstname.lastname@example.org has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.
Blog: Workers ' Compensation
LinkedIn Group: Injured Workers Law & Advocacy Group
Author: "Workers' Compensation Law" West-Thomson-Reuters
Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L., NJ Supreme Court Defines The Authorized Vehicle Rule, www.gelmans.com (11/24/2023), https://workers-compensation.blogspot.com/2023/11/nj-supreme-court-defines-authorized.html
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