Officer’s Injury During Paid Lunch Not Compensable Under Workers’ Comp

George Politza was a police officer employed by Harrison Township, New Jersey. On January 28, 2009, while on duty, in uniform and equipped with his police radio, Politza met a fellow officer for lunch at a pizzeria. After having lunch and while returning to his police vehicle parked on the lower level of an adjacent parking garage, Politza slipped and fell on a snow and ice-covered stairway. He reported his injury and received immediate medical treatment.

Politza applied for accidental disability retirement benefits. New Jersey’s Retirement Board denied the application but granted him ordinary disability benefits. The Board found that the January 28, 2009 incident was a traumatic event, as a direct result of which Politza became totally and permanently disabled from performing the customary duties of a police officer. However, because the fall did not occur during and as a result of his regular and assigned duties, the Board denied Politza an accidental disability retirement benefit.

An appeals court upheld the denial of benefits. The Court ruled that “to establish eligibility for accidental disability retirement benefits, the law requires an applicant to be permanently and totally disabled as a direct result of a traumatic event occurring during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties. The organizing principle is that one who is at the employer’s premises solely to do his or her duty, and who, while doing what he or she is expected to do, is disabled by a traumatic accident, will qualify for inclusion in the class of those injured during and as a result of the performance of his regular or assigned duties.

“This ‘bright-line’ premises rule also encompasses activities preparatory to but essential to the actual duty. Included within its scope are on-premises lunch and restroom breaks that are necessary concomitants of an employee’s performance of his or her regularly assigned tasks, so long as they occur within the confines of the workday at the work location.

“To be sure, the fact that an employee is injured off-premises does not automatically exclude him from accidental disability protection. When off-premises, however, an applicant, to be eligible, must be injured during and as a result of regular or assigned duties.

“Here, of course, Politza suffered the traumatic event off-premises while descending an icy stairway after having a personal lunch at a pizzeria with an off-duty colleague. He was therefore neither on premises – property owned or controlled by his employer – nor performing an activity preparatory but essential to his actual duties at the time he sustained his injuries. On the contrary, Politza was returning to his patrol car parked in a private parking lot of a shopping plaza after enjoying a lunch break with a friend.

“Politza nevertheless contends he was in uniform and required to monitor his radio for possible assignments while on his lunch break. Yet the fact that a police officer may be considered always on duty does not mean that every accident occurs during and as a result of his regular and assigned duties. The fact remains that during his lunch off-premises, Politza was neither responding to any police call, patrolling the site, or performing any assigned duty, and therefore cannot properly be considered to be engaged in activity considered to be causally connected, as a matter of common sense, to the work his employer has commissioned.”

Politza v. Board of Trustees, 2014 WL 463064 (N.J. Super. 2014).