A Maryland state appeals court said recently that a court bailiff who left work to change his stained clothes without explicit permission and was injured in a serious accident on the way back to the courthouse was not eligible for workers' compensation.
The Garrity Case
Scott Garrity, a part-time court bailiff in Baltimore City, Maryland, made some unfortunate decisions one day at work in the summer of 2006. When he got to the courthouse, he discovered unsettlingly that he had accidently worn a Christmas-themed tie, which he did not believe complied with the dress code. While he was waiting for his son to bring him a new tie, Garrity spilled coffee on his tie and shirt. At that point, he decided to go home and change clothes.
He asked the other courtroom bailiff to handle court business while he drove home. Garrity did not consult with a supervisor about leaving, but testified that bailiffs regularly covered for one another during errands. On the way back to work, Garrity was in a head-on collision with a truck that caused injuries serious enough to keep him in the hospital for a month.
The Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission approved Garrity's workers' compensation application after a hearing. The WCC found that the injury "arose out of and was in the course of his employment," the basic requirement for eligibility. An injury normally arises out of the course of employment when it happens during the claimant's employment duties or an activity "incident to" those duties.
On review, the Baltimore County Circuit Court held a bench trial, after which it reversed the WCC. The trial court said that the "going and coming rule" applied, taking Garrity's accident outside the course of his employment, and therefore he was not eligible for workers' compensation.
Going and Coming Rule
The going and coming rule in Maryland is a well established workers' compensation principle. In a nutshell, it means that when an employee is traveling to work or home from the workplace, he or she is not covered by workers' compensation because injuries incurred during a work commute do not arise "out of or in the course of" employment.
The policy behind the rule looks at the nature of the risk a commuting worker takes. He or she is on his or her own, choosing the route and method of transportation, and exposing him or herself to the same traveling risks that other citizens do, as opposed to the unique risks a person takes by choosing to work in a particular workplace. In addition, the time clock normally does not start until an employee arrives at work.
While exceptions to the rule exist, the trial court found none of them applicable to Garrity's circumstances. Whether an exception applies that would allow workers' compensation recovery during a work commute depends heavily on a careful analysis of the unique facts of each case.
Exceptions to the Rule
Garrity appealed to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, which affirmed the lower court's holding that he was not entitled to workers' compensation for his injuries from the motor vehicle accident. The appeals court looked at whether any of three of the several exceptions to the coming and going rule might apply to Garrity:
- Special mission exception: If an employee is traveling on a "special mission or errand" at the direction of the employer that will help the business, an injury during that mission will be covered by workers' compensation. The court felt that Garrity, in spite of his "good intentions," was not sent on the trip home by his employer and that in fact he was not actually authorized to leave without express permission. It also pointed out that, in contrast, other cases had allowed this exception when employers had explicitly instructed workers to go home and change clothes.
- Dual purpose doctrine: Sometimes an injury during a personal commute will be covered by workers' compensation if, in addition to the personal nature of the trip, there is a second purpose that is related to the employer's business interests. Finding this exception also did not apply to Garrity, the court reasoned that having his work radio with him to communicate with the office did not create a business reason, nor was the fact that he traveled home to comply with the dress code a business reason. The court reemphasized that he did not have permission to leave and would have probably served his employer better by staying at work.
- Personal comfort exception: Maryland cases have held that when employers give short paid breaks for employees to tend to their "personal comforts," they are still within the course of their employment and covered by workers' compensation. In Garrity's case, the court found that his employer did not grant such breaks and the unauthorized trip home did not fall within this exception.
The court also said in essence that Garrity would have had a stronger case had he asked for and gotten permission for his trip home to change clothes.
Maryland workers' compensation law is complicated and anyone denied benefits should consult with an experienced workers' compensation attorney to discuss the details of his or her case and whether legal remedies may exist.