PA Supreme Court Speaks on [and Adopts] Traveling Employee Doctrine – A Win for Injured Workers
In its self-described first examination of the traveling employee doctrine, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that employees who travel for work are entitled to a rebuttable presumption of being within the course and scope of employment during the entirety of work-related travel. This necessarily includes the worker’s travel home at the conclusion of the work activity and, in this instance, includes the worker’s voluntary attendance at an employer-sponsored after hours happy hour. In enforcing the protections afforded injured workers, Justice Mundy reminds of the liberal construction of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act necessary to effectuate the law’s intended purpose of benefiting injured workers and their dependents. In other words, close calls and ties in interpreting the law are to go to the benefit of the injured worker.
In Peters v. WCAB (Cintas Corp.), No. 1 MAP 2020, 2021 Pa. LEXIS 4002 (Pa. Nov. 17, 2021), a portion of the injured worker’s duties required periods of travel. On the date of injury he had been traveling and providing business services to various clients. After completing his clear-cut work duties he drove to and attended a social gathering at a local restaurant sponsored by his employer. Accepting the lower Court’s fact finding, the High Court regards the worker’s attendance at the event as voluntary and not required by the employer. After leaving the restaurant and apparently on his way home, the worker was injured in a motor vehicle collision. The trial court, Appeal Board, and Commonwealth Court all held that the worker was outside of the scope of employment at the time of the crash and declined to award benefits. The Supreme Court was not so persuaded and specifically spoke to the broad protections afforded the injured worker by the Act, including the presumption that workers who travel to meet their employer’s objectives are historically afforded broader protection for injuries occurring while in transit. The High Court adopted the traveling employee doctrine finding the doctrine is implicated when the injured worker first proves that (1) he is a traveling employee and (2) that he set out on the day of the accident on the business of the Employer. In so finding the Court vacated the Order of the Commonwealth Court, and remanded the case for a determination on whether the injured worker had abandoned his employment at the time of the crash. Abandonment is an affirmative defense to the traveling employee doctrine which is available to Defendant employers/insurers. The Defendant carries the burden of proof on this point once the injured worker establishes his status as a traveling employee.
In addition to adopting the traveling employee doctrine Peters recognizes that non-mandatory, voluntary, social events hosted by an employer can be considered work-related for the traveling employee as these types of events foster relationships among co-workers and improve morale all inuring to the benefit of the Defendant-employer. The Court also declined to limit the protections of the traveling employee doctrine to fatal claims only, as argued by the defense.
The take home message for workers who travel for a living – the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation laws presume to protect and cover you from the time you start your work duties until the time you return home. Once these factors are credibly established the burden is on the Defendant to prove work abandonment through evidence of activities so foreign or novel as to sever the continuity of the course and scope of employment relationship.