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Injury to Employee Walking To Car In Leased Parking Lot Found Compensable

By on September 9, 2021 in Compensability with 0 Comments

Cases involving parking lot injuries continue to generate divergent results in the Division of Workers’ Compensation and the Appellate Division.  Walker v. Saker Shop-Rite, No. A-2770-19 (App. Div. Sept. 7, 2021) illustrates this point yet again.

Ms. Walker, a 70-year-old employee, fell on December 11, 2018 while walking to her car in the leased supermarket parking lot after completing her shift.  Her injury was caused by stepping into a pothole.  A key fact was that petitioner admitted she parked in the side parking lot area rather than in the area designated for store employees out by the street.  She never felt it was safe to park by the street, so she chose to disregard the store’s instructions and park near an area where employees would smoke and drink coffee.  She said there was a “cabana type thing” on the side parking lot where employees gathered for a smoke or a cup of coffee.  That is where she chose to park for 25 years.  She said she mentioned her decision once to an assistant manager of the liquor department years ago. Petitioner said other employees also disregarded the directive to park near the street.

Saker Shop-Rite had a fairly common shopping center lease in that the store agreed to pay a common area maintenance fee to the landlord based on its pro-rata share of the entire shopping center for maintenance, insurance, snow removal and other items.  There were eight or ten other stores in the shopping center.

In 2018 Saker Shop-Rite agreed with the landlord to an amendment of the lease which would allow Saker to repave the parking lot and perform other traffic improvements.  Counsel for Saker Shop-Rite testified that this was done because the landlord did not want to make application to the Planning Board in Neptune.  Saker Shop-Rite agreed to apply to the Planning Board, make the repairs and then submit the cost of repais to the landlord for reimbursement.  Well after petitioner’s fall, the store got approval from the Planning Board and made the repairs.  This was a one-time event.

There was also testimony from the HR Manager about the designated parking area.  She said that new employees were advised to park in the designated area near the street.  The HR Manager also would tell employees that were observed parking in non-designated areas to park near the street in the designated area.  There was additional testimony that certain store employees were responsible for gathering shopping carts scattered in the parking lot.

Following the trial, the Judge of Compensation ruled that petitioner’s fall was not compensable because it occurred in an area not under the control of Saker Shop-Rite. This decision was consistent with the New Jersey premises rule.  The Judge noted that petitioner “consciously chose to ignore Saker’s directive to park in the designated area.”  Petitioner appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed in favor of petitioner, relying on a number of factors, many of which are common to all parking lot leases:

  1. The Court said, “The accident occurred in the parking lot used by Saker’s customers, employees and vendors.” 
  2. The Court added, “Petitioner was walking to her car in the parking lot used by Saker when she sustained her injury.”
  3. In a surprising finding, the Court said, “We find inconsequential that petitioner, like other employees, chose to park in an area different from the area designated by Saker for employee parking.”  The Court excused petitioner’s conduct by observing that she was motivated by reasonable concerns for her own safety.
  4. Interestingly, the Court seemed to base its decision largely on Livingstone v. Abraham & Straus, Inc., 111 N.J. 89 (1988).  In that case an employee of a department store in a Mall was required to park in a distant location designated for employees and was struck by a car while walking from the designated lot to the store.  The Court observed that the employer in this case was deemed to have control over the lot because it required petitioner and others to park in a distant location.  However, the Court failed to mention that Ms. Walker was not injured walking from the designated parking area.  She had never parked there for 25 years!
  5. The Court further observed that the respondent used the side lot to allow its employees to smoke and gather for coffee.
  6. The Court cited the common area maintenance charges, a standard in virtually every lease, as evidence of employer control. 
  7. Lastly, the Court felt that the lease amendment allowing Saker Shop-Rite to repave the front parking lot was evidence of control of the lot, even though in the end the landlord had to pay for the work done in the lot.

This decision is unreported and therefore not binding on other courts.  Nonetheless, it adds to a puzzling array of contradictory decisions on parking lot injuries where the employer does not own the lot.  The problem with this decision is simply that it makes no sense to base “control” on the designated parking area near the street in this case.  This petitioner admitted she never parked there for 25 years.  The petitioner in Livingstone was walking from the designated area when struck by a car.  Ms. Walker was walking to an area where customers and some other employees parked in an undesignated area.

It seems that the Appellate Division decision is a far stretch.  “Employer control” was imputed to Saker Shop-Rite merely because some employees used the designated parking area – but none of them was filing a workers’ compensation claim for injuries. As to this petitioner, the Judge of Compensation’s reasoning was on point.  Ms. Walker was just walking to her car in an area used by customers and employees, like any other parking lot where an employer leases space for its employees and customers.  There was no added hazard as to her because she avoided the much longer walk by choosing to park close to the store.  As to the designated parking lot, the evidence seemed more like a request than a requirement since many employees apparently ignored the company policy with impunity.

Boilerplate lease issues, like common area maintenance charges, are a part of virtually every lease and clearly irrelevant to employer control.  Only one fact in this case was problematic for the employer. The lease agreement originally entered into in 1992 was amended in 2018 to permit Saker Shop-Rite to repave the front lot.  But that was done for the convenience of the landlord in avoiding the planning board application process.  It was a one-time repaving issue.  In the end, the landlord had to pay for the repairs anyway – and the repairs took place months after the accident.

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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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