Officer Injured In Off-Duty Collision In Take-Home Car Entitled To Workers’ Compensation

Michelle Ross is a police officer with the Salt Lake City Police Department. The Department has a take-home car program under which officers are allowed to use Department vehicles while off duty.
On February 24, 2000, Ross drove her take-home patrol car, accompanied by her son, from Tooele to Salt Lake City, where she attended a meeting of the FTO program in which she participated. On her way home, Ross fueled her patrol car at the Salt Lake City gas pump and proceeded to Tooele. As required, Ross had her police radio on during her commute home, although radio reception degraded as she entered Tooele County. On Highway 36 in Tooele County, her car crossed the center line and hit several vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Ross injured her neck in the accident.

The City denied Ross’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits for the injury. Ross appealed the denial to the Utah Supreme Court, which reversed the denial and ordered the payment of workers’ compensation benefits.

Central to the Court’s decision was the so-called “going and coming” rule. As a general rule in most states, an employee’s injury does not arise out of and occur in the course of employment if the injury is sustained while going to or coming from work. The City contended that Ross, off duty at the time of the incident, fell squarely within the going and coming rule.

The Court found to the contrary. The Court reasoned that an employee may be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if the injury occurs while the employee is engaged in an activity that is at least incidental to employment. An activity is incidental to the employee’s employment if it advances, directly or indirectly, his employer’s interests.

“We are satisfied that the City enjoyed sufficient benefits from Ross’s participation in the take-a-car-home program to find her eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The City does not dispute that the City benefited from the program by having more officers available for immediate response, from better care of patrol cars, and from increased police visibility. Officers with take-home cars were prepared to respond to emergency calls at any time. These officers always had at hand those items required to be kept in the take-home patrol cars, including their service gun, police radio, identification, flashlight, ticket book, report forms, and flares.

“While it is also true that Ross enjoyed benefits from the program in the form of reduced transportation costs, these benefits are largely irrelevant to this scope-of-employment inquiry. Salt Lake City received incidental benefits from Ross’s travel that were not common to commuter trips by ordinary members of the work force. Consequently, Ross’s accident arose out of and in the course of her employment under Utah’s Workers’ Compensation Act.”

Salt Lake City Corporation v. Labor Commission, 2007 WL 79236 (Utah, 2007).

Note: In an unusual twist, the motorists Ross struck sued the City, claiming that it was responsible for their injuries since Ross was acting in the course and scope of employment. In a separate decision, the Utah Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit. The Court explained this seeming inconsistency on the grounds that where the negligence lawsuit involved the question of who the primary beneficiary of Ross’s travel was, the workers’ compensation case only involved the question of whether the City received any incidental benefit from Ross’s travel.

This article appears in the May 2007 issue