Work Commute Is Not Within Scope Of Employment

Work Commute Is Not Within Scope Of Employment

Employers routinely have to grapple with defining and understanding where duties relative to their employees begin and end, particularly in situations when the employee is away from his or her location of employment. Potential liability issues in this context not only arise out of claims made by employees relating to compensation and benefits for time spent away from their work location, but also to potential third-party tort liability for accidents and injuries arising from travel to and from work.

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On July 12, 2016, in Allenbaugh v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Illinois Court of Appeal for the Third District, provided some assurance to employers that these duties will not be readily extended to claims arising from travel to and from work.  The appellant in Allenbaugh was a City of Peoria police officer who claimed to have sustained a work-related injury while driving to work.  The officer alleged that the accident occurred while he was driving en route to a mandatory training.  The mandatory training was not during the officer’s normal shift hours, and the officer had to endure inclement, snowy weather while traveling.  The officer also contended that while he was traveling he was carrying various work-related gear that was mandatory for the training, including a nightstick, gun belt, handcuffs, tazer and a training uniform. The officer also contended that the driving was part of his overall work-related duties as a patrol officer, as he spent between 65% to 75% of his shift driving while on duty.  Finally, the officer generally contended that due to the nature of his work, he was effectively on-call “24 hours per day.”

The officer sought benefits under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act for his accident-related injuries.  The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (“Commission”) denied his claim, and the officer appealed.

The officer advanced two theories in the Court of Appeal as to why his injuries were work-related.  First, he asserted that his employer maintained sufficient “control” over him at the time of the accident that he should have been considered to be with the “scope of his employment.”  Second, he contended that he was a “traveling employee” within the meaning of Illinois law.   A traveling employee is an employee whose job duties require him or her to travel away from the employer’s premises.  The Court of Appeal rejected both of these contentions.

On the issue of whether the City of Peoria Police Department asserted sufficient control over the officer so as to consider him to be within the scope of his employment, the Court of Appeal began by noting that all employees are required to travel to work, and the fact that the officer was required to do so during a time when he was not regularly scheduled for work made no difference.  The fact that the officer could have been disciplined for failing to report to the mandatory training also was not material, as it was similar to any other job situation when an employee missed work.  The court concluded that because “all employees are required to go to work…we fail to see how the fact that claimant was going someplace he was required to go to work distinguishes his situation from normal commuting.”

On the issue of whether the officer qualified as a “traveling employee” under Illinois law, the Court of Appeal began by noting the general proposition that accidents occurring while an employee is traveling to and from work do not generally arise out of the course of employment.  The court noted that the traveling employee doctrine was generally not applicable to commuting, but rather, only applied when an employee was directed to travel for work-related purposes.  The court rejected the officer’s argument that because he was required to drive for the majority of his shift, was required to travel on the day of the accident, and was required to drive in inclement weather, that that distinguished his situation from any other ordinary commuter.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the Commission’s conclusion that “the traveling employee doctrine should (not) be extended to include any claimant who is involved in an accident on the way to their normal workplace, driving their personal vehicle without any additional compensation and not performing any duties incidental to their employment when the only basis for finding so is a department order that the claimant’s regular work shift was different for that particular day.”

TAKEWAY FOR EMPLOYERS:

Allenbaugh should provide assurance to Illinois employers that time spent commuting to and from work should not be found to be within the course and scope of employment.  It can serve as support not only for claims involving workers’ compensation, but should also be argued that, by analogy, it applies to other contexts where an employee seeks benefits or compensation for travel to and from work, and to third party tort liability claims arising from accidents while commuting to work.  In rejecting the various factual claims of the appellant officer, the Court of Appeal also affirmed a bright-line test that an employee commuting to and from work is not within the course and scope of employment.

Contributor:  Daniel C. Zamora, Attorney at Law  |  Weintraub Tobin