Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Court of Special Appeals Expands the Positional-Risk Test for Traveling Employee

In Gravette v. Visual Aids Electronics, et al., 2014 Md. App LEXIS 35, 90 A.3d 483 (2014), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland expanded the liability for employers with traveling employees. 

In Gravette, an employee was assigned to set up audio visual aids at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center between July 7 and July 16, 2011.  During that time, he was a guest at the hotel.  On July 10, he was injured after work hours while dancing at a night club in the hotel.  The Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission found that the injury did not arise out of the terms and conditions of his employment, and that it did not occur in the course of his employment; therefore Mr. Gravette was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.  The case was appealed and the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County agreed with the Commission.  Gravette then appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision.

The seminal case on this issue was Mulready v. University Research, 360 Md. 51, 756 A.2d 575 (2000).  In the Mulready case, a traveling employee who slipped and fell while taking a shower in his hotel room was found to have a compensable case.  The court announced the positional risk rule should be applied to traveling employees:
Absent facts indicating a distinct departure by the employee on a personal errand that would not be in the contemplation of the parties, an injury to a traveling employee generally is compensable so long as it occurred as a result of an activity reasonably incidental to the travel that the employer required. Thus, even injuries suffered by traveling employees as a result of common perils of everyday life or as a result of purportedly personal acts generally are compensable.

Id. at 66. 

In the present case, the Court held that that engaging in recreational activities such as dancing constitutes an activity, analogous to eating or showering, reasonably incidental to the travel required by his employer. 

The intermediate appellate court went on to say that Gravette’s use of an on-site nightclub is at least as foreseeable as cases found compensable in other jurisdictions, such as an injury that occurred while using a motel’s pool, or playing basketball at a YMCA a few miles away from the hotel.  The court distinguished these cases from another case where a flight attendant, while on a 24 hour layover, was injured when she traveled 58 miles to go downhill skiing.   The court in that case ruled that was not a reasonably foreseeable activity based on the distance traveled and the general dangerous nature of downhill skiing. 

Ultimately, the court in the Gravette case found the activity to be reasonable in that it was not dangerous or out of the ordinary, and found that it was foreseeable because the nightclub was on the premises and the employee could reasonably be expected to utilize a facility on the premises of the hotel where he was required to stay.  Though not specifically laid out in the wording of the Court's opinion, there is also a strong implication in the decision that Maryland wishes to distinguish itself from 20th century Elmore City, Oklahoma.

This ruling is important because it expands the general liability of employers for their employee’s injuries while they are traveling for work and may lead to stricter regulation of employees’ free-time activities during the course of their business trips.  In an age where employees are seeking, more than ever, to maintain a positive quality of life through balance between work and non-work activities, we can definitely expect to see more cases like this arise in the future.  If you are analyzing whether your company is protected with under its current policies feel free to contact us for a consultation.  

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