Background Facts of Case
Claimant was a housekeeper for the Pennsylvania State University Behrend Campus. On June 7, 2007, he left where he was working at Perry Hall, to take a one-half hour unpaid lunch break at an on-campus dining facility operated by Employer, where Claimant participated in an Employer-sponsored meal plan. (He would have to notify his supervisor, and clock out and clock back in, if he left campus for his lunch break.) On the way to the dining facility, he intentionally jumped down an entire flight of approximately 12 steps. This resulted in multiple fractures to both ankles, and he underwent surgeries on both ankles and screws were inserted. He did return to work without a loss of earnings on August 7, 2007.
On June 25, 2007, Claimant filed a Claim Petition, which was subsequently litigated. In opposition to the Petition, Employer contended this incident's occurrence was outside the course and scope of Claimant's employment, that the incident happened because of horseplay and in violation of a positive work order, and accordingly, that the resulting injury was non-compensable.
Claimant testified that jumping down the flight of steps was a whim on his part. He also said, though, that he thought about jumping down this flight of stairs previously. A co-worker of Claimant testified that Claimant told her, prior to the injury date, that he thought he could successfully jump down this set of stairs.
The Workers' Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted benefits, finding this incident did not occur outside the scope of Claimant's occupational activities, and that Claimant's actions did not constitute a direct and intentional violation of a positive work order against horseplay.
Employer appealed, and the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed the WCJ's holding, concluding the injury arose within the course of Claimant's employment, and resulted from an activity not foreign enough to Claimant's regular duties as to remove him from the scope of his employment at the time of injury.
Upon further appeal, to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, Employer contended that intentionally jumping down the flight of stairs caused Claimant's injury, that his actions constituted horseplay violative of a positive work rule, and that, consequently, the injury was non-compensable.
Commonwealth Court's Holding
The Commonwealth Court undertook to address several questions. Did Claimant's actions in jumping down the flight of steps meet the definition of a compensable occupational injury under Section 301(c)(1) of the Workers' Compensation Act, as amended? Did this activity occur during the course of Claimant's employment? Was the activity, resulting in the injury, related to Claimant's employment? Did Claimant's actions further Employer's business? Was the accident caused by a condition of Employer's premises? Was the accident caused by the operation of Employer's business or pursuit of its affairs on premises where Claimant's presence was required?
The Court first focused on whether Claimant's actions occurred within the course and scope of his employment, and if he was engaged in the furtherance of Employer's business operations at the time of the incident. The Court stated, "an activity that does not further the affairs of the employer will take the employee out of the course and scope of employment and serves as a basis for denial of the claim by the WCJ." The Court noted that Claimant was on a lunch break when he was injured on Employer's premises. The Court acknowledged that if Claimant had been on his lunch break but was injured off Employer's premises, he would not be found to have been acting in furtherance of Employer's business. (The Court did state that sometimes such an activity would be compensable if it occurred during a small, temporary departure from work to tend to personal comforts and conveniences, or if the injury occurred during an inconsequential or innocent departure from work.) The Court continued, noting that employees who remain on an employer's premises for a lunch break, and sustain an injury at that time, are generally considered to be in furtherance of the employer's business unless the activity in which they were engaged is wholly foreign to that employment. Generally, neither small, temporary departures from work to administer to one's personal comforts or conveniences, nor inconsequential or innocent departures, will break the course of employment. The questions for this case involved whether the action of jumping down the flight of steps on the way to the lunch break was a departure from work that was lengthy or was temporary, and whether it was considered monumental or was deemed minor. The Court stated that breaks that allow an employee to administer to personal comforts better enable him to perform his job and are therefore considered to be in furtherance of an employer's business interests. However, did Claimant's foolish and ill-advised stunt qualify under this category, to invoke compensability? Was jumping down a flight of steps and causing oneself serious orthopedic injury an act that somehow furthered Employer's business objectives? Did Employer encourage an activity, for instance, remaining on-campus during a lunch break? Did such activity promote Employer's interest in maintaining good relationships with employees? Such factors were helpful to consider in order to determine if an employee is furthering an employer's business when injured while engaging in purely personal activities during a work break.
The Commonwealth Court ultimately determined that Claimant's actions on his date of injury went beyond, and deviated from, activities normally associated with his housekeeping job duties. He voluntarily jumped down a full flight of stairs, instead of navigating the stairway step-by-step, as per normal. This was not a spontaneous decision on Claimant's part, as he had contemplated doing it previously, and he had even mentioned this thought to a co-worker. His actions did not constitute a mere inconsequential departure from work. This was not an interval of leisure at work. Employer did not encourage him in any way to jump down the stairway. Jumping down the stairs did not further Employer's business interests. Although walking through Employer's premises to his lunch break, Claimant's actions, while getting from one place to the other, were considered by the Commonwealth Court to have been dangerous, premeditated (versus whimsical or spontaneous), deliberate (not accidental), extreme, and inherently risky. To the Court, these facts were sufficient to remove Claimant's actions from the course and scope of his employment. Claimant was not required to eat at the on-campus facility. The Court indicated that whether an employer has a cafeteria or other eatery on its premises is not dispositive to determining whether an employee was injured during the course of his employment while on his way there. The Court stated that under the Workers' Compensation Act, an employer is not an all-encompassing insurer of the safety of every employee when they do stupid things on its premises.
Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court reversed the grant of benefits.
If your claimant's injury was caused by an action or activity which took him outside the course and scope of his employment, under the various factors and standards enunciated by this case, contest the claim. Document all relevant facts that led to the incident. If the claimant files a Claim Petition for an injury that resulted from a similar ill-advised, dangerous, deliberate, and high risk activity which the claimant voluntarily did, even while on the employer's premises, based on the holding of this case, it appears that a viable defense to the Petition is available.
If you would like a copy of Penn State University v. WCAB (Smith), issued by the Commonwealth Court on February 22, 2011, or if you are interested in discussing this case and its implications, please do not hesitate to contact any of the members of this firm's Workers' Compensation Group.