What if two lawyers leave their separate offices to meet at a coffee shop to discuss a case? Is the commute to the coffee shop compensable for either or both of them? The answer was no in the context of the facts in Pilone v. County of Middlesex, A-1676-19, (App. Div. March 15, 2021).
Appellate Court case Pilone v. County of Middlesex, A-1676-19 raised the question of whether lawyers meeting to discuss a case at a coffee shop to discuss a case are covered by workman’s compensation benefits if one were to get injured. In this case, the Judge of Compensation ruled no.
The case details that Lynn Pilone worked as an assistant prosecutor in Middlesex County. She arrived at her office in New Brunswick in the morning on March 21, 2017 and later was planning to meet with a victim-witness to get information about a case. Prior to the scheduled meeting, she wanted to discuss the case with Helen Zanatakos, a colleague and experienced assistant prosecutor who might be able to provide insight. Helen worked nearby at a different office, and so the pair aimed to meet at 11:00 am at a coffee and doughnut shop to discuss the case.
At 11:00, Pilone began walking from her office to Zanatakos’s office, and the pair began walking to the coffee shop situated about a block down the road. While en route, Pilone slipped and fell down on the sidewalk by a parking lot near Zanatakos’s office and was taken to a hospital in an ambulance.
After that, Pilone filed a workers’ compensation claim. The County of Middlesex read and then denied the claim, stating that the injury did not arise from petitioner’s employment. Trial then proceeded with Pilone testifying that she was not on a lunch break when she fell and got injured, and that she simply planned to discuss the case with Zanatakos in person, which was part of her routine employment. It was normal for the petitioner to discuss cases in places other than the office, as the office can sometimes be busy. She had intended to purchase coffee and then discuss the file, which she believed she had with her at the time of the injury.
Zanatakos testified that she wished to speak about the case with Pilone because she knew the victim-witness was not happy with how her case had proceeded, and hoped to provide some guidance to her. The pair at times would discuss personal matters, but in this case, the discussion was only meant to be about this specific file.
The Judge of Compensation granted the County’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the petitioner’s fall occurred off premises of work, and that it occurred on public property. On appeal, petitioner argued that her fall was subject to the “special mission” exception in which an employee is covered during a ‘special mission’ for work purposes. The Court used the precedent set in Supreme Court decision Hersh v. County of Morris, 217 N.J. 236 (2014). That particular case defined the “situs of the accident” and “the degree of employer’s control” in these matters.
The Appellate Division noted in the decision that the petitioner had not been specifically told to work offsite by her employer, stating, “Although N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 extends compensability to duties assigned or directed by the employer, petitioner did not demonstrate that meeting at the donut shop was assigned or directed by the Prosecutor’s Office.” The Court distinguished another well-known case involving a drive to a coffee shop, namely Cooper v. Barnickel Enters, 411 N.J. Super. 343 (App. Div. 2010). In that case, the Court noted that petitioner was directed to work elsewhere other than the primary place of employment. The petitioner was injured while en route to purchase coffee, which is different because the employee was instructed not to be at the office at that time. The Court said that, in this case, the petitioner could have decided to meet in the office or elsewhere if she so chose, but there was no direct employer instruction to meet at the donut/coffee shop.
The decision thus explains that it would be improper to extend the ‘special mission’ exception to a case where an employee chooses on their own volition (without employer direction) to meet for work off premises, and therefore the Appellate Court was just in rejecting the compensability of the claim.