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New Jersey Supreme Court Finds Parking Lot Accident Compensable

By on January 19, 2022 in Compensability, Court Rulings with 1 Comment

On January 18, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded round three of Diane Lapsley v. Township of Sparta, a case that dates back to February 3, 2014.  On that date Mrs. Lapsley, a librarian for the Township, left work early when the Township closed the library due to a snowfall.  Her husband picked her up.  Mr. Lapsley parked his car in the lot adjacent to the library.  The Lapsleys stepped off the library curb, walked about 18 feet along the parking lot when Mrs. Lapsley was struck by a snowplow owned by the Township and operated by a Township employee. The accident caused significant injuries to Mrs. Lapsley’s leg, requiring multiple surgeries and leaving her leg disfigured.

The twist in this case occurred right at the beginning, as Lapsley did not file a workers’ compensation claim.  Instead, her lawyer filed a civil complaint against the Township and the coworker who was driving the snowplow.  The Township moved to dismiss the civil suit based on the exclusive remedy provision.  The Law Division stayed the civil suit and referred the matter to the Division of Workers’ Compensation.  The Judge of Compensation properly found that petitioner was injured in a Township owned and controlled parking lot and ruled that the case was compensable.

Lapsley appealed to the Appellate Division, which reversed and found that the accident was not compensable because the Township did not instruct Lapsley on where to park, nor how to enter and exit the municipal complex.  The Appellate Division also observed that the parking lot was a shared one with the Township, School Board and public. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court took certification and decided the case this week.   The Court first observed the key provision in N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 that states “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.”  The Court then went on to comment on this last clause: “excluding areas not under the control of the employer.” It said:

[t]he Legislature used the phrase ‘excluding areas not under the control of the employer’ in its definition of employment because it intended to include areas controlled by the employer within the definition.  That phrase was intended to make clear that the premises rule can entail more than the four walls of an office or plant.

Kristiansen v. Morgan, 153 N.J. 298 (1998).  The Court referred again to Kristiansen at page 317 for the proposition that “This Court has stated that control exists when the employer owns, maintains, or has exclusive use of the property.”

The Supreme Court found Mrs. Lapsley’s accident to be compensable because the accident occurred in the parking lot adjacent to the library, and the Township owned and maintained that lot. The reversal was not surprising at all. In fact, it was like an instant replay where an umpire calls out a baseball player at first base but the replay shows the runner to be five feet past the base when the ball reaches the first baseman.   In other words, this was not a close call at all.  Yet this case is going to prove to be an important one because of the new parking lot legislation that passed this month.

Readers of this blog are aware that the Governor signed a new parking lot bill earlier this month which may open the door to arguments for compensability for accidents that take place in shared multi-tenant parking lots.  That new law states:

Employment shall also be deemed to commence, if an employer provides or designates a parking area for use by an employee, when an employee arrives at the parking area prior to reporting for work and shall terminate when an employee leaves the parking area at the end of a work period; provided that, if the site of the parking area is separate from the place of employment, an employee shall be deemed to be in the course of employment while the employee travels directly from the parking area to the place of employment prior to reporting for work and while the employee travels directly from the place of employment to the parking area at the end of a work period.

It is just a matter of time before Judges of Compensation will be deciding claim petitions for injuries in multi-tenant parking lots.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Lapsley does not comment on the new law because that law was just passed a week before this decision was released.  Claimants’ counsel may argue that a fall in a multi-tenant parking lot should be found compensable under the new parking lot law, even though the employer does not own the parking lot.  Employers will argue the point that the Supreme Court made in Lapsley, namely that the statute says “excluding areas not under the control of the employer” when deciding issues of compensability under the premises rule.  We will keep readers apprised on this issue over the coming months.

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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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  1. George Geist says:

    I will always remember advice from Chief Judge Calderone as I started my judicial career: “ Get John Geaney’ s Book! “. I sure did as I now thank you again. You have been and continue as the best with provision of wisdom! Thanks for your updates!

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