A Rock Hill mechanic who suffered severe burns while repairing his own truck on the job was entitled to workers' comp benefits, the Appeals Court ruled March 6, 2006. The reason: employees were allowed to use downtime to work on their own vehicles - and the claimant's truck was going to be used for company purposes after it was fixed, the appeals panel said.
The fact that the employer stood to benefit from the claimant's activity was key in finding compensability, according to the opinion. Another factor was the claimant's use of his employer's shop and tools while working on the vehicle, the court said. "This injury happened at the jobsite, with the knowledge, permission, acquiescence, custom and practice of the company," said the claimant's attorney, William P. "Billy" Walker Jr. of Lexington.
"We were able to take depositions from employees in the rest of the country to verify that the practice of the company was to allow work on personal vehicles that were not directly related to work, due to the fact that when they had downtime, they had to have something to do," Walker told Lawyers Weekly. Another key factor, according to Walker, was that the claimant's truck was being repaired so it could be used to transport people and tools for the employer. "This truck was not going to be used solely by my client, it was going to be used by the company. The idea was to fix it up and save the company a bunch of money by using this old piece of equipment," he said.
Walker said his client ran up approximately $3 million in medical bills after suffering severe burns when his truck's gas tank exploded. The employer's attorney, Donald L. Van Riper of Columbia, said he believed the claimant's injuries fell outside the scope of his employment. "We thought those activities were purely voluntary and were not sanctioned by the employer," Van Riper told Lawyers Weekly. The case is West v. Alliance Capital and Frontier Ins. Co. (South Carolina Lawyers Weekly No. 011-051-06, 7 pages). Judge John W. Kittredge wrote the opinion. Chief Judge Kaye G. Hearn and Judge H. Samuel Stilwell concurred.
The claimant was employed by Alliance Capital, which leased his services to Meylan Enterprises. Meylan was primarily involved in heavy industrial cleaning at nuclear power plants and manufacturing facilities.
The claimant worked as a foreman who supervised shop activities and mechanic work at the company's Rock Hill facility.
Employees were required to clock in and remain on the premises during their shift unless they were called to an off-site assignment. Because the jobs were sporadic, employees were supposed to do preparatory work while waiting on calls.
The single commissioner found that there was a custom of allowing employees to work on their personal vehicles while on the job. Meylan did not have enough vehicles to transport people and equipment to jobsites. The claimant told his supervisor that he had a truck that the company could use.
The vehicle was inoperable at the time. The supervisor authorized the claimant to travel out of state to retrieve the truck and bring it back for Meylan's use. Several weeks before the accident, the claimant and another employee drove to West Virginia with a company truck and trailer to pick up the claimant's vehicle. Meylan paid for the trip. Upon return, the truck was stored in Meylan's shop.
On the day of the accident, the claimant was waiting for other workers to return from a job. He decided to work on his personal truck's gas tank. The claimant was using Meylan's equipment to sandblast the inside of the tank when it exploded. The claimant suffered second-degree and third-degree burns over 54 percent of his body. The single commissioner ruled that the injury was compensable, and awarded benefits. The full commission and the Circuit Court affirmed. Alliance Capital appealed.
The employer argued that the claimant's injury was not compensable because there was no causal connection between working conditions and his injury - and it did not occur during the course of the claimant's employment. The appeals panel rejected those arguments and upheld the benefits award. "Alliance Capital argues the employment did not proximately cause the injury because [the claimant's] injury arose from merely permissive activities, not required duties," Judge Kittredge wrote.
The Appeals Court said the record indicated that the claimant's truck was going to be used for company purposes after it was fixed.
"[The claimant's] injury arose out of the employment because the truck was being repaired for Meylan's benefit, using company resources, with Meylan's consent," Judge Kittredge wrote.
Whether the employer benefited from the claimant's activity was the decisive factor in determining whether the injury occurred in the course of employment, according to the opinion.
The appeals panel distinguished the case of Hicks v. Piedmont Cold Storage, Inc., 335 S.C. 46, 515 S.E.2d 532 (1999).
"In Hicks, the court denied compensation to an employee who was repairing a personal vehicle at the worksite. The circumstances of [this claimant's] injury present an entirely different situation, for the injury in Hicks occurred on a Saturday, during non-working hours, during work for which the employer derived no benefit from the vehicle repair," Judge Kittredge wrote.
"Here, the employer paid [the claimant] for repairing the vehicle at the worksite, and the activity occurred during working hours, using tools furnished by his employer and for the purpose of remedying the employer's vehicle shortage at the Rock Hill site," he wrote.
Case Name: West v. Alliance Capital and Frontier Ins. Co.
Court: S.C. Court of Appeals
Judge: Judge John W. Kittredge
Attorneys: Donald L. Van Riper and Suzanne C. Boulware, Collins & Lacy, PC, of Columbia, for appellants; William P. Walker Jr., Walker & Morgan, LLC, of Lexington, for respondent.
Issue: Was claimant entitled to workers' comp benefits for injuries he sustained while repairing his personal vehicle at work?
Holding: Yes. There was a custom of allowing employees to use on-the-job downtime to work on personal vehicles, and the employer stood to benefit from the claimant's activities since he planned to use the vehicle for company purposes.
Potential Impact: The decision indicates that the court will uphold benefits when employees are injured while doing personal chores - so long as there is a sufficient benefit to the employer.