Under workman’s compensation law, a worker is generally not allowed to file a standard Superior Court personal injury lawsuit against his employer for a work-related injury. Rather, the worker must sue his employer in workman’s compensation court. In workman’s compensation court, a judge, not a jury, decides the case. Workman’s compensation judges often award less compensation than do Superior Court juries. However, in the Superior Court, the worker usually has to prove that the party he is suing was actually at fault for his injuries. In workman’s compensation court, the worker need not prove any fault by the employer. It’s enough that the employee suffered a qualified work-related injury.
(Note: “Workman’s compensation” is often referred to as either “workmen’s compensation” or “worker’s compensation.” They are all the same thing.)
Here are excerpts from a recent workman’s compensation case. The judges had to decide whether the alleged injury occurred during the course of work.
A man named Miller worked for Shoprite. His work shift was 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. The supermarket allowed workers to come to the store after 10:00 a.m. on Fridays to cash their weekly paychecks. Employees also could take their paychecks home with them. Or they could arrange for the direct deposit of their wages into their bank accounts.
Shortly after 10:00 a.m. one Friday, Miller arrived at the store to pick up his paycheck. He was wearing what appeared to be pajamas. He was not scheduled to begin his shift until hours later. A person who had given him a ride to the store was apparently waiting for him outside.
Miller obtained his paycheck at the courtesy desk and cashed it. He used part of the money to buy a lottery ticket for a co-worker. Miller walked over to the co-worker, handed her the ticket, and began heading toward the store exit.
Miller then slipped on a white substance. It may have been salt or sugar. He arose and noticed his “slip print” in the white substance. Miller claims that he reported his accident to a bookkeeper on duty. He did not seek immediate medical attention. Miller left the store fifteen minutes later. He later filled out an incident report.
According to Miller, following the accident, his left knee swelled and became painful. He felt as if he had pulled a muscle in his groin or thigh. His back started to hurt.
Nevertheless, Miller did not seek any medical treatment for over a month. An MRI revealed that he had injured the medial meniscus of his knee. He wore a knee brace for a period of time. He also took over-the-counter pain medications.
WORKMAN’S COMPENSATION CASE FILED
Miller ultimately filed a case for workman’s compensation benefits. Shoprite opposed him. It argued that the alleged injury did not occur in the course of Miller’s employment.
Miller also filed a standard personal injury lawsuit against Shoprite in the Superior Court.
The workman’s compensation judge ruled that the injury had arisen in the course of Miller’s employment. The judge found it significant that the store had adopted a policy allowing its employees to cash their paychecks at the store. The judge surmised that the policy benefitted the store. Workers who came to cash their checks during non-shift hours might well make “impulse” purchases. Therefore, it was as if Miller was on-duty.
The workman’s compensation judge awarded Miller $11,686.50. Therefore, Miller allowed his separate action in the Superior Court to be dismissed.
WAS PAJAMA-CLAD WORKER “ON-DUTY”?
The supermarket appealed. It argued that any injury took place “off-duty.”
The appeals judges noted that Miller’s fall occurred on his employer’s premises. However, it also occurred at a time when Miller was not performing any services. He was not even dressed for work. He was present in the store to accomplish a personal task.
The appeals judges did not agree that the supermarket benefitted from allowing its workers to cash their paychecks at the store. They believed that the practice was just a convenience. In fact, the store’s benefits manager testified that employees were discouraged from remaining in the store if they were not working or shopping.
In short, the appellate court overruled the workman’s compensation judge. The judges dismissed Miller’s worker’s compensation case.
Nonetheless, Miller did get some good news. He will be allowed to resume his Superior Court lawsuit. It is possible that he may recover more money there than he did in workman’s compensation court. But he will have to prove that Shoprite was at fault.