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Traveling Employees? What Is Your Liability?

Article by Danielle Parks, Esq.

As COVID restrictions are lifted and employers move into their post-pandemic reality, many employers are resuming in-person events, including holiday parties for the upcoming holiday season. A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case highlights employers’ potential liability for its employees’ injuries before and after these events.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently addressed a frequently litigated question of law, the traveling employee doctrine. Peters v. WCAB (Cintas Corporation), No. 1 MAP 2020, 2021 WL 5349146, at *1 (Pa. Nov. 17, 2021).

In Peters, the claimant was a uniform sales representative who spent a portion of his workweek traveling to potential customers in the Reading Pennsylvania region. Following a sales appointment, Mr. Peters attended an employer-sponsored event at a local bar. After the event, Mr. Peters was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Subsequently, Mr. Peters filed a Claim Petition. The Employer denied Mr. Peters was in the course of his employment at the time of the accident.

Mr. Peters provided testimony that he passed the exit leading to his home in order to attend the event. Mr. Peters testified that the event was to celebrate the end of a sales week and that his employer typically held these events. These events were “sort of” mandatory and included a presentation. The employer presented testimony that these events were voluntary, social, and did not include any sort of presentation. Further, one witness believed that at the time of the accident, Mr. Peters was on his way home from another event he attended after the employer-sponsored event. The Workers’ Compensation Judge ultimately dismissed the Claim Petition, crediting the employer’s witnesses. The WCJ found that Claimant did not demonstrate he was “acting in furtherance of the Employer’s business or affairs at the time of the accident.” Peters, at 6. Mr. Peters appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and then to the Commonwealth Court.

In its opinion, the Commonwealth Court focused on whether a claimant is a traveling or stationary employee. If a claimant was a traveling employee, the Court applied a two-part test. First, is the question of whether the employee’s job duties involve travel. Second, whether the employee works on the employer’s premise or whether the claimant have no fixed place of work. If the employee met this criteria, then the employee was afforded a presumption that the employee was within the course of employment at the time of the injury. It was then up to the employer to rebut this presumption. In Mr. Peter’s case, the Commonwealth Court determined that Mr. Peter was a traveling employee whose scope of employment ended when he passed the exit.

On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Claimant argued that his attendance at the work event did not break the scope of his employment. The employer argued that the traveling employee doctrine should only apply in fatal claim cases. The Court was not moved by the employer’s arguments to limit the doctrine. In discussing the developments of traveling employees over the courts’ histories, the Supreme Court, citing the humanitarian purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act, concluded that an employee is in the course of employment during the entire work-related travel unless that employee abandons their employment.

The Supreme Court held that under the traveling employee doctrine, a claimant must demonstrate that they are a traveling employee, and they were in furtherance of the employer’s business. The burden will then shift to the employer to demonstrate that the employee’s actions constitute an abandonment of employment.

In Mr. Peter’s case, the WCJ found that Mr. Peters was a traveling employee. The Supreme Court did not find the fact that Mr. Peter’s passed his exit on the way to the event ended the scope of his employment. The Court focused on the event itself. While the event was voluntary and social, the employer still received benefits of improved morale and fostering relationships among its employees. Ultimately, this case was remanded back to the WCJ to decide whether Mr. Peters started his journey home directly from the employer-sponsored event or a subsequent event.

This case highlights employers’ potential liability for its employees’ injuries that occur after employer-sponsored events. Employers who employ traveling employees now have clearer guidance on when an employee’s scope of employment begins and ends.