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Appellate Division Rejects Argument That Employee Was On A Special Mission And Was Compelled To Report To A Training Meeting

By on June 4, 2020 in Key Defenses with 0 Comments

A key doctrine in the law known as “respondeat superior” provides that an employer is responsible for the acts of its employees performed within the course of their employment.  Whether that doctrine applied to an employee who had a motor vehicle accident after being summoned to a training meeting was the issue in Samol v. Vanlaningham, No. A-5058-18T2 (App. Div. June 3, 2020). 

The facts involved a high school student, Ryan Vanlaningham, who was called by his store manager to attend a training meeting at Party City where he worked in March 2016.  Vanlaningham was informed that he would be compensated at his usual hourly rate for the training meeting, and he would work his regular shift the same day.  He was not compensated for the time driving to the training meeting at his work location.  While driving to the training meeting, Vanlaningham’s vehicle struck a vehicle owned by Pablo Samol.  A passenger in Samol’s car, Beatrice Samol, was injured and filed a lawsuit naming Vanlaningham and his employer, Party City, as defendants.

Party City opposed the law suit and moved to dismiss it.  The company argued that Vanlaningham was not in the course of his employment when he was driving to work for the training meeting under the going-and-coming rule.   Samol countered that this was not a normal commute to work because Vanlaningham was either compelled to go to work or was on a special mission, two exceptions to the premises rule, which replaced the going-and-coming rule in New Jersey in 1979.

The trial judge ruled that Vanlaningham had not arrived at work when the accident occurred, and therefore Party City was not liable for his actions.  The judge concluded that the training meeting was a normal and routine part of the young man’s employment.  The Appellate Division agreed with the trial judge but considered the argument of Ms. Samol that Vanlaningham was “compelled” to undertake the actions of driving to the training meeting.  The Court reviewed the two leading cases on compulsion in workers’ compensation, namely Sager v. O. A. Peterson Constr. Co. and Lozano v. Frank De Luca Constr.  Those cases stand for the proposition that an otherwise non-compensable activity can become compensable if the employer compels an employee to perform the activity.

The Court seemed to blend the special mission and compulsion arguments together: “Here, there was no credible basis to support the assertion defendant controlled Vanlaningham’s commute or that his commute fell within the scope of his job duties.  The facts did not demonstrate Vanlaningham’s commute was pursuant to a special mission; he was traveling to his regular place of employment on one of his pre-scheduled workdays.  For these reasons as well, his drive to work on the day of the incident was not a compelled activity.”

The decision of the court is clearly correct and the reasoning is a sound. But the court slightly missed the mark on the special mission argument.  The statute states that a special mission only applies when the employee is required to be away from the employer’s place of employment.  N.J.S.A. 34:15-36.  Here the drive was directly to the normal place of employment.   Therefore, it could not be considered a “special mission.”

As for the compulsion argument, all employees are compelled to go to work.  Attendance at work is not optional, as we all know.  The compulsion line of cases is a valid one in New Jersey.  However, it only applies to activities that are not normally required of employees. Since all employees are compelled to report to work, the compulsion argument really made no sense.  If the court were to entertain the argument that a drive to the normal work site was compelled, it would completely undercut the goal of the 1979 Amendments, which was to do away with the many exceptions in the law to the going-and-coming rule. 

Thanks to attorney Ron Siegel for bringing this case to our attention.

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John H. Geaney

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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