Divided OK Supreme Court Reverses Denial of Claim Involving Travel to Work Site

In a divided decision, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma reversed a lower court’s finding and held that a pipeline installation worker’s injuries sustained in a vehicular accident while traveling to the work site occurred within the course and scope of the employment in spite of the employer’s contention that the worker’s workday did not begin until he arrived on the site, attended a daily safety meeting, and signed a log acknowledging such attendance [Pina v. American Piping Inspection, Inc., 2018 OK 40, 2018 Okla. LEXIS 40 (May 8, 2018)].

Background

At the time of his injury, Pina worked at an oil rig site located some 130 miles from his residence. His usual practice was to travel weekly to the employer’s drilling site, where he would work for 6 days and then return home on the weekend. The employer provided a daily per diem payment for lodging and meals incurred by Pina.

The employer also used Pina’s truck to haul work-related equipment and materials and paid Pina $50 per day for its use. It was also the practice of the employer to pay for the gas necessary to refuel Pina’s truck each morning before traveling to the rig site. Pina was required to stop at the employer-designated gas station at a time set by Pina’s supervisor. Following the morning fill-up, Pina would drive the remaining 30 miles to the work site, attend the required safety meeting, and sign in.

It was also undisputed that the employer agreed to purchase ice and water for the entire crew, but only if they stopped at the designated gas station at the designated time. Water and ice was not available within walking distance of the work site.

On the day of injury, Pina met his supervisor at the designated gas station to get ice, water and gasoline. The supervisor paid for the gas and supplies with the company credit card just as he had been doing for three months. The evidence suggested that Pina then asked his supervisor for permission to leave the gas station and drive to the drilling site. On his way, Pina had a collision and sustained serious injuries. Pina did not, of course, attend the daily safety meeting and did not sign the employment log. It is interesting to note, however, that the employer paid him for a full day’s work.

ALJ Found No Injury AOE/COE

The ALJ found Pina was not performing employment services at the time of injury as required by 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 2(9)(b)(3) and that the injury did not arise out of and in the course of the employment. The ALJ also found that at the time of the accident Petitioner was not “in furtherance of the affairs of his employer.” The Commission affirmed the ALJ and the Court of Civil Appeals also affirmed, essentially on “going and coming” grounds. The Court of Civil Appeals also determined that the trip from the gas station to the rig drilling site was a dual purpose trip and as such was excluded under 85A O.S. Supp. 2013 § 2(13)(b).

Course and Scope of Employment Can Include Travel

The Supreme Court stressed that the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act (“AWCA”) specifically envisioned that “course and scope of employment” could include “travel by an employee in furtherance of the affairs of an employer that is specifically directed by the employer” [see 85A O.S. 2013 Supp. § 2(13)]. Here the employer used Pina’s truck to haul equipment and supplies. Such activity was clearly work that furthered the affairs of the employer. There were no gas stations or ice and water within walking distance of the oil rig site.

While the employer urged that it was not mandatory for Pina to stop, the majority declined to adopt the employer’s view. Considering all of the evidence, the majority concluded that Pina met his burden to show that he was at the gas station as specifically directed by the employer and done in a fashion that furthere the employer’s business needs. Moreover, Pina was hauling material for the benefit of the employer and was “in furtherance of the affairs of an employer” as contemplated by the AWCA.

The majority also rejected the employer’s contention that Pina was not technically “working” unless he arrived at the rig site and signed in for the safety meeting. The majority added that it was undisputed that the supervisor acknowledged at the hearing before the ALJ that he considered Pina was reporting for work that morning when he made it to the gas station.

No “Dual Purpose”

The majority found no evidence in the record that Pina’s travel was for a “dual purpose.” Acknowledging that the AWCA excluded coverage if an employee’s travel in furtherance of the employer was also in furtherance of the employee’s personal or private affairs. The majority said a thorough review of the record lacked any evidence to support a finding that Pina was engaged in any personal or private reason for his travel from the gas station to the drilling site.

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