Workers Compensation and the perils on the way to work

It was a news story that made every school administrator in North Carolina cringe. He was the principal at Fairmont Middle School and driving to school from his home in Lumberton. As he was on his cell phone (which was provided by the school) talking with a school curriculum coach discussing various school related issues, a car pulled alongside and shot him in the face. The principal survived, but suffered serious injuries to his face, mouth, and teeth and underwent numerous surgical procedures. While the principal did not see who fired the shot, he believed he was targeted because of his anti-gang activities in the community and at school. There was also the possibility of disgruntled parents or staff members who had been disciplined. Police investigated all school and non-school related leads, but not could not identify who shot the principal or why. The principal applied for worker's compensation benefits and was found eligible. The school district appealed.

Hunt v. Public Schools of Robeson County

It is fundamental to any workers' compensation claim that the injury arise out of and in the course of employment. For an injury to be "in the course of employment," it must occur under circumstances in which the employee is engaged in an activity which he or she is authorized to undertake and which is calculated to further, directly or indirectly, the employer's business. The analysis is easier when the injury occurs on an employer's premises, during working hours, and while the employee is actively engaged in the performance of his or her duties. The analysis is more difficult in the case of the principal on his way to school. But the Court of Appeals found that the shooting did occur in the course of employment-principals in Robeson County are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the conversation the principal had on his school-provided cell phone was an allowable use of the phone to conduct school business.

But what about the "coming and going" rule," the school board argued. That rule provides that an injury suffered while an employee is traveling to and from work do not arise in the course of employment and thus is not compensable under workers compensation. As most general rules, however, there are exceptions and one exception is when an employer contractually provides transportation or allowances to cover the cost of transportation . Where such costs are made incident to a contract of employment, worker's compensation benefits have been allowed. In the case of the principal, the Court of Appeals found that he was indeed given a travel allowance under his contract of employment and was never told it could not be used for covering expenses traveling to and from the school. The coming-and-going rule was found to not bar receiving benefits.

There are other exceptions to the coming-and-going rule, and the issue of when an injury arises in the course of employment can be a complex one. If you find yourself injured in what you think may be an employment related circumstance, you should seek the advice of an experienced North Carolina worker's compensation attorney.