Employment Law Alert: No Exception to the Going and Coming Rule Found in Death of Watch Commander

Are workers’ compensation death benefits payable to the dependents of a prison watch commander who was killed in a motor vehicle accident while driving home from a work shift extended at the request of his employer? The answer to the question is no, according to the California Court of Appeal in Shannon Lantz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, State Compensation Insurance Fund F065934.

In its extensive analysis the 5th Appellate District panel reviews the history of case law about the going and coming rule. The rule was first enunciated by the California Supreme Court nearly a century ago in its decision Ocean Accident etc. Company v. Industrial Accident Commission (1916) 173 Cal 313, 322. There the court wrote, “They are excluded from the benefits of the workers’ compensation act all those accidental injuries which occur while the employee is going to or returning from his work ….”

In the years since that doctrine was published, many exceptions to the going and coming rule have been devised by the Courts of Appeal. The Supreme Court has noted in its most recent analysis of the going and coming rule (written 30 years ago), “The going and coming rule has been criticized by Courts and commentators alike as being arbitrary and harsh. It has generated a multitude of exceptions which threaten, at times, to defeat the rule entirely.” Among the many exceptions the courts have applied are the special mission exception, the special risk exception and the required vehicle exception – each of which was set forth in separate cases and each of which depends on a separate fact pattern.

The fatal accident causing Mr. Lantz’s death occurred during a drive of 85 miles one way, and followed the end of a second shift of work that the deceased was required to complete immediately following the end of his regularly scheduled shift. Under the controlling collective bargaining agreement, Mr. Lantz had been held over from his usual 8 hour shift to work an additional 8 hour shift as the acting watch commander. The collective bargaining agreement dictated which of the officers onsite at the time the need arose would serve as the acting watch commander, and this need was common. Though Mr. Lantz was not aware he was required to serve as the watch commander until after he arrived at work to begin his regular shift, he was familiar with the obligation. The dependent family members argued that Mr. Lantz having to work a second shift extended extraordinary benefits to the employer qualifying for an exception to the going and coming rule.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge determined that the commute home after the extended shift was an extraordinary change in the work requirement to the benefit of the employer and therefore fell within an exception to the going and coming rule. On reconsideration the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board reversed the trial Judge. It held that there was no exception here to the going and coming rule, because of the predictability of the hold-over procedure, the similarity of the duties to Mr. Lantz’ day to day obligations, and despite the length of the regular commute.

In its analysis the Court of Appeal acknowledged that it could not substitute its review of the facts for the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board’s judgment, and must defer to the Board’s determination that these facts do not constitute extraordinary circumstances, and therefore do not fall within an exception to the going and coming rule.

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May 22, 2014