• Course of Employment Argument Saves Employer
  • July 23, 2003 | Author: Estelle Kokales McGrath
  • Law Firm: Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin - Pittsburgh Office
  • Judge Pellegrini authored an opinion for a panel of Judges on the Commonwealth Court concerning a Pennsylvania workers' compensation case in which the claimant failed to present any evidence that he was in the course and scope of his employment when injured. The court reversed the Workers' Compensation Board (Board), which affirmed the Workers' Compensation Judge's (WCJ) decision to grant the claimant benefits. The court held that the claimant was not injured while actually engaged in the furtherance of his employer's business or affairs and was, therefore, not entitled to receive benefits. Acme Markets, Inc. v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Purcell), ___ A.2d ___ (No. 2244 C.D. 2002, filed February 20, 2003).

    Acme Markets, Inc. hired Purcell in 1978 as a produce clerk. A few years later, the claimant became employed as a night-crew clerk and a night-crew manager, with duties that included unloading merchandise from tractor-trailers and stocking the merchandise on the store shelves. The position required repetitive lifting of up to forty pounds and twisting.

    The claimant filed a claim petition on July 16, 1999, alleging that he suffered a work-related low-back injury, which became apparent when he began suffering severe physical symptoms while he was at home on June 15, 1998. The claimant argued that the injury occurred as a result of continuous and daily bending, lifting, and twisting over a substantial period during his work as a night-crew stocker and manager. He sought total disability benefits from June 17, 1998, through March 28, 1999, the date he returned to work at his pre-injury wages. Acme Markets filed an answer specifically denying that there was a work-related injury.

    As part of the claimant's case before the Workers' Compensation Judge, he testified that his job with the employer consisted of over twenty years of repetitive heavy lifting and twisting. In that testimony, he indicated that he had previously suffered low-back injuries while working for the same employer in 1984, 1988, and in 1993 or 1994, which resulted in about four to six weeks of disability. The claimant testified that on June 15, 1998, he felt a severe, sharp pain in his lower back when he got up from the floor where he had been sitting for approximately two hours. During those two hours, he was assembling a filing cabinet for his wife. The claimant subsequently notified the employer that he had been injured at home and requested an application for non-work-related sickness and injury benefits, which he received and which documented that his injury was not due to his employment.

    On January 13, 1999, the claimant underwent surgery for his back and returned to work on March 28, 1999. In addition, the claimant admitted that, prior to his back injuries with the employer, he golfed approximately two times a week; however, at the time of his testimony, he was only golfing once a week.

    The claimant then offered the testimony of Michael Sugarman, M.D., who performed the back surgery on the claimant and diagnostic studies following the underlying work-related injury. It was Dr. Sugarman's opinion that the type of work activities the claimant performed over the substantial length of time caused deterioration in his lower back resulting in the June 15, 1998, injury. He further acknowledged that the claimant's recreational activities would have contributed to the degenerative process; however, the amount of time devoted to performing the work activities far outweighed the time devoted to golfing. Therefore, Dr. Sugarman concluded that the claimant's work activities were the primary cause of the degeneration.

    As part of Acme's defense, it presented the testimony of Karl Rosenfeld, M.D. Dr. Rosenfeld examined the claimant on January 12, 2000. At first, it was Dr. Rosenfeld's opinion that the claimant's injury was due to years of work with the employer. However, after a conversation with the employer's counsel, Dr. Rosenfeld stated that he believed the claimant's twenty years of work with the Acme did not contribute to his low-back injury. Instead, he opined that it was the single incident of getting up from the floor on June 15, 1998, which was the sole cause of his condition. He explained that because he learned that the claimant was able to engage in golf prior to his work-related incident, it was his opinion that the claimant's twenty years of employment did not contribute to his injury. Instead, the doctor opined that it was the single incident of getting up from the floor that caused the claimant's injury.

    The Workers' Compensation Judge found the testimony of Dr. Sugarman credible and rejected Dr. Rosenfeld's testimony for various reasons. Consequently, the Workers' Compensation Judge found that the claimant met his burden of proof and granted benefits.

    The employer subsequently appealed to the Board, which affirmed the Workers' Compensation Judge's decision. The employer then filed an appeal to the Commonwealth Court arguing that the Workers' Compensation Judge and the Board erred in awarding the claimant benefits because his back injury did not arise in the course and scope of his employment and was not work-related.

    The Commonwealth Court explained that Section 301(c)(1) of the Workers' Compensation Act requires the claimant to prove the existence of an employment relationship during which an injury arose in the course of the employment and which was related to the employment in order to establish a right to compensation. The Commonwealth Court got back to the basics by discussing the definition of the term "injury" and "injury arising in the course of employment." As previously explained in Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Slaugenhaupt) v. United States Steel Corporation, 376 A.2d 271 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1977), the court explained that the term injury arising in the course of employment shall include "All . . . injuries sustained while the employee is actually engaged in the furtherance of the business or affairs of the employer . . . . "

    The court explained that there are two ways in which an injury can be sustained in the course of employment. One way an employee can be injured in the course of employment is when the employee, regardless of his location, is injured while actually engaged in the furtherance of the employer's business. The second way an employee can be injured in the course of employment is more complicated because it requires that the claimant not be engaged in the furtherance of the employer's business, but also requires the following: (1) the claimant must be on the premises occupied or under the control of the employer, or upon which the employer's business or affairs are being carried on; (2) the claimant must be required by the nature of his employment to be present on his employer's premises; and (3) the claimant must sustain an injury caused by the condition of the premises or by the operation of the employer's business.

    The Commonwealth Court correctly explained that there was no evidence presented in this case that the claimant was doing anything to further the employer's business. Moreover, the Commonwealth Court noted that the claimant admitted he was injured after sitting on his living room floor for two hours while putting a filing cabinet together for his wife. The claimant provided the court with no case law to support his contention that he should be compensated because his medical evidence linked his home injury to his work activities. The court explained that "[w]ere that the case, an employee could allege a work-related injury suffered at home while pursuing personal activities if he had a resulting injury even remotely similar to a previously documented ailment that occurred while at work." As Judge Pellegrini explained, this is not what the Legislature intended when it required that the employee actually be engaged in the furtherance of the employer's business. As the court concluded, they noted that the Workers' Compensation Judge never made a finding that the claimant was in the course and scope of his employment when injured. Pursuant to Section 301(c)(1) of the Act, in order for a claimant to receive workers' compensation benefits, he must be injured in the course and scope of his employment. As the claimant was not injured while actually engaged in the furtherance of the employer's business, he was not entitled to receive benefits.

    In dictum, the court explained that there have been cases where they have found that a claimant is entitled to benefits although the activity and injury were performed at home. However, it is the claimant's burden to present evidence that the activity being performed at home was furthering the employer's business.