A worker who was injured in a car accident when he was traveling home from his job site in the middle, rather than the end, of the workday at the direction of his employer is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, according to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The state’s high court reversed the state’s compensation appeals board’s denial of benefits in the case of Elba Hawes, an employee of Asplundh Tree Expert. The court found that his case qualifies as a “special errand” exception to the general rule that injuries incurred while “coming and going” to work are not compensable because they did not happen “in the course of employment.”
On November 1, 2019, because of an impending storm, the company told its workers to stop work at noon and go home for the afternoon so they could return to the job site at 8:00 p.m. for storm cleanup activities through the night. According to the court documents, it was not uncommon for the work schedule to change because of weather.
As instructed, Hawes left the job site with his coworkers and punched out at noon. Soon after driving away in his personal vehicle, he was severely injured in an accident that was not his fault. A vehicle crossed the center lane and hit his vehicle “head on,” sending his vehicle “across the oncoming lane,” where it was “hit by a tractor trailer.”
Because of his accident-related injuries, Hawes was disabled from work from November 1, 2019, through February 9, 2020.
The court noted that the phrase “in the course of” employment refers to whether the injury “occurred within the boundaries of time and space created by the terms of employment” and “in the performance of an activity related to employment.” The test, thus, contains three elements: time, space and job-related activity.
Hawes argued that an employee’s travel may be considered to be within the course of employment if the “trouble and time of making the journey, or the special inconvenience, hazard, or urgency of making it in the particular circumstances, is sufficiently substantial to be viewed as an integral part of the service itself.”
The high court essentially agreed, citing previous cases involving a mill worker who was injured in a car crash while traveling to buy parts to fix equipment for his employer, a high school teacher killed while driving home to change his clothes and pick up his wife before chaperoning a school event, and a hotel worker called to work at night to serve liquor to guests at a party who the employer allowed to drive home at 3 a.m. knowing she was intoxicated.
The high court found that the three tests were met by Hawes for his injuries to qualify as a special errand exception. The court said the claimant’s journey “was special, not because it differed in nature” from his normal commute, “but because it had to be done at a time different from [his] usual hours” at the employer’s special request.
In this case of Hawes, because his travel home in the middle of the workday was occasioned by his employment, the “risk that he would be injured by a hazard commonly associated with such travel was an employment-created risk.”
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