PA Supreme Court further clarifies course and scope of employment and traveling employees

On November 17, 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously held in Peters v. WCAB (Cintas Corporation) that an injured worker injured in a car accident after a work sponsored happy hour event was in the course and scope of employment, for workers’ compensation purposes. The Supreme Court overturned a Commonwealth Court decision from 2019, denying benefits due to being outside the course and scope of employment.

Whether an employee is in the course and scope of employment is a fact based inquiry. The inquiry usually revolves around the concept of whether the employee was furthering the employer’s business or affairs. In this case, the injured worker was a traveling salesman and was attending an employer sponsored happy hour. Specifically, the injured worker relied on the traveling employee doctrine.

Upon leaving the happy hour, the employee was involved in a motor vehicle accident. He filed a workers’ compensation claim and that claim was ultimately dismissed by the Workers’ Compensation Judge as outside the course and scope of further the employer’s business. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the Commonwealth Court affirmed the WCJ’s decision, denying benefits to the injured employee. The Court noted the traveling employee doctrine;

When a traveling employee is injured after setting out on the business of his employer, it is presumed that he was furthering the employer’s business at the time of the injury. The employer bears the burden of rebutting the presumption. To meet its burden the employer must prove that the claimant’s actions were so foreign to and removed from his usual employment that they constitute an abandonment of that employment. Temporary departures from the work route for the purpose of administering to the comforts of an off-the-premises employee, including authorized breaks for lunch, will not interrupt the continuity of the employee’s course of employment.

This case further defined that doctrine.

Upon review of the traveling employee doctrine, we adopt the doctrine as set forth in Roman. We must liberally construe the phrase “course of employment” to effectuate the humanitarian purpose of the Act. Gallie, 859 A.2d at 1291-92. For a traveling employee, the act of travel is essential for carrying out the business of his or her employer. A traveling salesman, for example, cannot carry out the business of his employer without traveling to present products and solicit business. As such, the act of traveling, in and of itself, furthers the business and affairs of a traveling employee’s employer. So too do the activities incidental to travel such as lodging, refueling, and stopping for food and drink. Therefore, to effectuate the humanitarian purpose of the Act, a traveling employee must be considered in the course of his or her course of employment during the entirety of work-related travel unless the employee abandons his or her employment.

Finally, as it relates to this particular case, the Supreme Court applied the traveling employee doctrine. Although the happy hour was an employer sponsored event, the employer argued that attendance was not mandatory and that during his travel back home from the event, he passed his highway exit, putting him outside the course and scope of employment. The Court responded;

We acknowledge the WCJ found the event at the Tilted Kilt to be voluntary and social in nature. Id.  However, those facts, do not mean the event was not work-related. The record reflects that Employer hosted and sponsored the event. While work may not have been discussed at the event, the event still benefited Employer by fostering relationships and improving morale.

That being said, the Supreme Court did vacate the Commonwealth Court decision, but also remanded the case back to the WCJ to resolve conflicting testimony between the employer and employee regarding travel back home from the event. The key to this decision is the fact the Court further defined the traveling employee doctrine.

Mark Buterbaugh

Attorney representing injured workers and Social Security Disability clients in Pennsylvania and Maryland.