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Appellate Division Holds That Public Employee Injured In Shared Parking Lot With Employees And The Public Is Not Covered For Workers’ Compensation Purposes And Can Sue Her Employer

By on March 26, 2021 in Claims with 2 Comments

When an employee is injured on the employer’s premises, including a parking lot owned and controlled by the employer, it is fundamental that such a claim is work related.  If this injury is caused by the actions of another employee, it is also fundamental that the two employees cannot sue each other or their employer in negligence.  Given these well-established rules, the published Appellate Division decision in Lapsley v. Township of Sparta, A-0958-19T3, (App. Div. January 29, 2021) is a real head scratcher.

Diane Lapsley worked as a librarian for the Township of Sparta.  The library sits within a municipal complex including three common-use parking lots, a baseball field, and the offices of the Sparta Township Board of Education. Petitioner could park in any of the lots.  On February 3, 2014 the library closed early on account of weather conditions, and petitioner’s husband came to pick Ms. Lapsley up.  Petitioner stepped off the library curb and walked about 18 feet into the lot when a township Public Works employee drove a snowplow into Mr. and Mrs. Lapsley.  Petitioner suffered serious injuries and required multiple surgeries. 

Ms. Lapsley brought a civil suit alleging negligence against the Township of Sparta and its Department of Public Works.  The Township moved to dismiss the suit because the exclusive remedy for an injured worker arising out of work is in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.  The case eventually moved to the Division of Workers’ Compensation for a determination of compensability. The Judge of Compensation found that the injury was compensable. The reasons were sound:  the Township owned, maintained and controlled the parking lot where the accident occurred.  

Petitioner appealed and argued that her injury was not compensable because it did not arise from her employment and because she was not engaged in any task for her employer’s benefit when the injury occurred.  The Appellate Division reviewed the relevant law in N.J.S.A. 34:15-36, which states that “employment … shall be deemed to commence when an employee arrives at the employer’s place of employment to report for work and shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’s place of employment, excluding areas not under the control of the employer ….”  This is the provision that the Judge of Compensation properly relied on.

Nonetheless, the Appellate Division reversed the decision of the Judge of Compensation and found that Ms. Lapsley was not within the scope of her employment when she was injured.   Even though the Court acknowledged that the Township owned the parking lot next to the library where petitioner was injured, the Court based its decision on certain considerations seemingly never cited before by any other court.  The Court said, “It was stipulated that petitioner was off-the-clock at the time of the accident and exited the library premises.”  But the Supreme Court decision in Ramos v. M & F Fashions specifically noted that New Jersey has no clock in or clock out rule.  Employees often linger at work long past the end of their day and arrive at work long before they may clock in, but nonetheless they are covered for purposes of workers’ compensation once they reach the work premises unless they deviate from employment.

The Court next relied on another principle not found within the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act. “Library employees were not given any instructions about where in the subject lot to park or indeed whether to park in that particular lot, on the street, or anywhere else in town where parking may be available.  Nor were library staff instructed on the manner of ingress or egress.”  To this practitioner’s knowledge, there are no published cases that have ever restricted the premises rule to a need to instruct employees about parking in public lots.  This petitioner was on the adjacent parking lot to the building where she worked when she was injured. The Court seems to be saying that since the Township did not require petitioner to park in that particular lot, and she could have parked elsewhere, her injury was not compensable.  This seems illogical.

The last point which the Court made was that the lot was shared with other municipal employees and members of the public alike. The Court postulated, “Thus, the stipulated facts established that petitioner’s employer exercised no control of its employee’s use of the subject lot, that control being a critical element of the premises rule’s application.”  This comment misses the emphasis in the statute on the words, “excluding areas not under control of the employer.”  It is not the employee’s use of the lot that matters but the employer’s control of the lot that the employee is injured on.

This is a reported decision and therefore it must be studied by practitioners and evaluated.  What this decision meant is that a badly injured worker was able to get around the exclusive remedy provision in order to sue her employer and make a much greater financial recovery.  From the employer standpoint, and public employers in particular, this case would expose employers to extremely costly civil litigation.  The exclusive remedy should have been applied here, and the Judge of Compensation was clearly correct.

From the employee standpoint, the case raises a number of alarming questions.  Does it mean that New Jersey employees lose workers’ compensation coverage when they “clock out?”  The Supreme Court has already stated that clocking in or out is not a precondition for employment coverage.  Does it mean that injured workers lose coverage when they are injured on a public lot simply because the public lot is shared by fellow employees and the public?  All municipal parking lots are shared by employees and the public.  Why would that matter?  Does it mean that a public employer is not liable for injuries in its own parking lot if it has not instructed employees on the manner of ingress or egress?   

In short, for both employers and injured workers, the Lapsley case is singularly problematic. Its rationale does not square with any prior decisions.

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About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Michael Pierson says:

    Unbelievable ruling

  2. Robert Franchetti says:

    Hi John. I hope all is well. I’m confused with how it is that the statutory language ” excluding areas not under control of the employer” applies to this scenario. Can you elaborate a bit and let me know where to find that language in the statute?

    Thanks very much. Robert Franchetti, EMC Ins. Co. 610-427-6249, robert.e.franchetti@emcins.com

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