Justice Fernandez-Vina’s Maiden Opinion

Hersh v. County of Morris, 217 N.J. 236 (2014).  It is traditional for a new Justice’s first opinion to be a unanimous, relatively uncontroversial one.  Yesterday, Justice Fernandez-Vina issued his first opinion for the Court in this workers’ compensation case.  The decision reversed a ruling of the Appellate Division that had awarded compensation to an employee of Morris County who was hit by a car while crossing a public street on her way to work from a parking garage where she had parking for which her employer paid.  A judge of compensation had likewise awarded benefits.

Under the Workers’ Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142 (“the Act”), an employee injured in an accident “arising out of and in the course of employment” can get workers’ compensation benefits.  Employment begins “when an employee arrives at the employer’s place of employment to report for work.”  Plaintiff contended that because she had parked in a parking space for which the County paid, on a level of the garage that the County specified, the garage was part of her employer’s premises and she therefore qualified for benefits.

The standard of review, as Justice Fernandez-Vina observed, was de novo as to legal issues.  Because the Act is “humane social legislation,” it is “construed and applied in light of this broad remedial objective.”  Often, that liberal construction mandate results in a ruling in favor of the employee.  Here, however, the employee did not prevail.

Justice Fernandez-Vina noted that, before 1979, the judicially-created “going and coming rule” barred benefit awards for injuries that occurred while an employee was traveling to or from work.  However, so many exceptions to that rule arose that in 1979 the Legislature tightened the Act and defined, for the first time, that employment “shall be deemed to commence when an employee arrives at the employer’s place of employment to report for work and shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’s place of employment, excluding areas not under the control of the employer.”  This “premises rule” made two inquiries dispostive– “(1) where was the situs of the accident, and (2) did the employer have control of the property on which the accident occurred.”

After carefully analyzing a number of cases on comparable facts, Justice Fernandez-Vina distilled them to the principle that “public places that are not under the control of the employer are not considered part of the employer’s premises for purposes of workers’ compensation benefits, even if the employees use the route for ingress or egress to the place of employment, except in those instances where the employer controls the route.”  Here, the County did not control either the garage or the street on which plaintiff was injured.  Though the employer’s “premises” are “not limited to the four walls of an office or plant,” the Court could not find that any premises controlled by plaintiff’s employer, the County, were the site of the injury here.  Given the 1979 amendment to the Act, the statute “does not invite expansive interpretations that would resurrect the ‘going and coming’ rule.”