Last Wednesday, a Georgia appellate court, holding the State Board of Workers’ Compensation had utilized an “erroneous theory” regarding what conduct constitutes a deviation from employment that will bar compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act, reversed a decision that denied benefits to a school custodian who sustained a severe foot injury while attempting to stop her runaway car on school property [ Stokes v. Coweta County Bd. of Educ., 2012 Ga. App. LEXIS 6 (Jan. 11, 2012)].
One of the custodian’s duties was to unlock and open the gates leading to the school parking lot before other employees arrived each morning. On the morning of her injury, it was very dark and raining heavily. The custodian pulled her car as close as possible to the gate. As she was unlocking the gate, her call began to roll downhill, away from the gate. She ran toward the car in an attempt to stop it, but tripped and fell. The car rolled over her foot, continued rolling until it stopped in a wooded area on school property. A few days after the incident, the custodian’s foot had to be amputated.
An administrative law judge granted the custodian’s claim for benefits, finding that she had sustained an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of her employment. The Board’s Appellate Division reversed. The custodian appealed to a county Superior Court, which affirmed the Board’s decision.
The basis for the Board’s decision was the so-called “deviation rule,” that where an employee breaks the continuity of her employment for purposes of her own and is injured before she brings herself back into the line of employment, her injury does not arise out of and in the course of the employment. The Board found that the custodian’s job duties included opening the gate, unlocking the building, emptying trash cans, sweeping, and so on, but did not include “going after a moving vehicle.” The Board reasoned that when she turned away from the gate, after putting her key in the gate’s lock, and pursued her car, she “undertook a personal mission, in pursuit of [her] personal property, not connected to her duties with the [e]mployer.” In addition, the Board found that the custodian did not pursue the car in an attempt to prevent injury to herself or another employee or damage to the employer’s property.
The appellate court concluded that the Board’s decision was based upon an “erroneous theory” regarding what conduct constitutes a deviation from employment that will bar compensation under the Act. The court observed that it was undisputed that at the instant the custodian’s car began to roll, she was on duty (not on break), was physically located precisely where her job duties required her to be at that time, and was performing a task required by her job duties and of benefit to the employer. Had her job not required that she stop her car on the sloped driveway and exit the car to open the gate, the accident would not have occurred.
The court added that this was not a case where an employee consciously decided to take advantage of a break in her work day, when she was free to do as she pleased, to run a personal errand. Rather, she responded instinctively and instantaneously to an unexpected and dangerous situation that arose directly out of the performance of her job duties. The court further observed that although it appeared that, as luck would have it, no one would have been hurt, and no school property would have been damaged, if she had the presence of mind to simply stand and let the car roll away, it contravened the humanitarian purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act and distorted the definition of a deviation from employment to say that her attempt to stop the rolling car was a purely personal mission.