Geaney: Worker Injured in Shared Parking Lot Can Sue Employer
Monday, March 29, 2021 | 0
When an employee is injured on the employer’s premises, including a parking lot owned and controlled by the employer, it is fundamental that such a claim is work-related.
If this injury is caused by the actions of another employee, it is also fundamental that the two employees cannot sue each other or their employer in negligence.
Given these well-established rules, the published Appellate Division decision in Lapsley v. Township of Sparta is a real head-scratcher.
Diane Lapsley worked as a librarian for the Township of Sparta. The library sits within a municipal complex including three common-use parking lots, a baseball field and the offices of the Sparta Township Board of Education. Petitioner could park in any of the lots.
On Feb. 3, 2014, the library closed early on account of weather conditions, and petitioner’s husband came to pick up Lapsley. Petitioner stepped off the library curb and walked about 18 feet into the lot when a township Public Works employee drove a snowplow into the couple. Petitioner suffered serious injuries and required multiple surgeries.
Lapsley brought a civil suit alleging negligence against the Township of Sparta and its Department of Public Works. The township moved to dismiss the suit because the exclusive remedy for an injured worker arising out of work is in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.
The case eventually moved to the Division of Workers’ Compensation for a determination of compensability. The judge of compensation found that the injury was compensable. The reasons were sound: The Township owned, maintained and controlled the parking lot where the accident occurred.
Petitioner appealed and argued that her injury was not compensable because it did not arise from her employment and because she was not engaged in any task for her employer’s benefit when the injury occurred. The Appellate Division reviewed the relevant law in N.J.S.A. 34:15-36, which states that “employment … 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.”
This is the provision that the judge properly relied on.
Nonetheless, the Appellate Division reversed the decision and found that Lapsley was not within the scope of her employment when she was injured. Even though the court acknowledged that the township owned the parking lot next to the library where petitioner was injured, it based its decision on certain considerations seemingly never cited before by any other court.
The court said, “It was stipulated that petitioner was off the clock at the time of the accident and exited the library premises.” But the Supreme Court decision in Ramos v. M & F Fashions specifically noted that New Jersey has no clock-in or clock-out rule. Employees often linger at work long past the end of their day and arrive long before they may clock in, but nonetheless they are covered for purposes of workers’ compensation once they reach the work premises unless they deviate from employment.
The court next relied on another principle not found within the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act.
“Library employees were not given any instructions about where in the subject lot to park or indeed whether to park in that particular lot, on the street or anywhere else in town where parking may be available. Nor were library staff instructed on the manner of ingress or egress.”
To my knowledge, there are no published cases that have ever restricted the premises rule to a need to instruct employees about parking in public lots.
The petitioner was on the adjacent parking lot to the building where she worked when she was injured. The court seems to be saying that since the township did not require her to park in that particular lot and she could have parked elsewhere, her injury was not compensable. This seems illogical.
The last point the court made was that the lot was shared with other municipal employees and members of the public alike. The court postulated, “Thus, the stipulated facts established that petitioner’s employer exercised no control of its employee’s use of the subject lot, that control being a critical element of the premises rule’s application.”
This comment misses the emphasis in the statute on the words, “excluding areas not under control of the employer.” It is not the employee’s use of the lot that matters but the employer’s control of the lot that the employee is injured on.
This is a reported decision and therefore must be studied by practitioners and evaluated. What this decision meant is that a badly injured worker was able to get around the exclusive remedy provision in order to sue her employer and make a much greater financial recovery. From the employer standpoint, and public employers in particular, this case would expose employers to extremely costly civil litigation. The exclusive remedy should have been applied here, and the judge of compensation was clearly correct.
From the employee standpoint, the case raises a number of alarming questions. Does it mean that New Jersey employees lose workers’ compensation coverage when they clock out? The Supreme Court has already stated that clocking in or out is not a precondition for employment coverage.
Does it mean that injured workers lose coverage when they are injured on a public lot simply because it is shared by fellow employees and the public? All municipal parking lots are shared by employees and the public. Why would that matter? Does it mean that a public employer is not liable for injuries in its own parking lot if it has not instructed employees on the manner of ingress or egress?
In short, for both employers and injured workers, the Lapsley case is singularly problematic. Its rationale does not square with any prior decisions.
John H. Geaney is an attorney, executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, a defense law firm in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.