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The New Jersey Supreme Court Aug. 12 tightened the conditions under which employees may make workers’ compensation claims if they are injured while running a personal errand during the workday. The decision, Jumpp v. Ventnor, A-37, adds another fact pattern for employers to look for when trying to defeat injured workers’ claims. The court, however, took pains to uphold the general rule that “minor deviations from the employee’s prescribed responsibilities” will still be ignored in the assessment of workers’ compensation claims despite a 1979 amendment to the Workers’ Compensation Act. That amendment, at N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, was intended to prevent compensation to workers injured while off the premises — commuting to work, during lunchtime shopping trips or playing softball in the company parking lot. It says that an employee must be in “the direct performance of duties” to be compensated. The law is complicated, however, when it applies to workers whose jobs keep them off the premises the entire day. Such was the case in Jumpp. Robert Jumpp was a pumping station operator who traveled about Ventnor monitoring the city’s sewers, wells and water towers. He had an agreement with his employer that allowed him to pick up personal mail at the post office. It was while on such a break that he tripped on a sidewalk, breaking his leg and pelvis. Jumpp argued that the deviation from his assigned duties was so minor it counted as the type that did not preclude him from compensation. He even presented evidence that his supervisor expected him to receive compensation for his injury. The trial court and the Appellate Division ruled, however, that his mail errand was not related directly enough to his work duties to constitute the type of minor deviation that the act ignores. The state Supreme Court affirmed 4-2, noting that the issue of an agreement between worker and employer about personal errands is irrelevant to the analysis. The justices did not, however, offer a great deal of guidance for the lower courts in terms of distinguishing which off-premises deviations are within the scope of compensation. “[G]enerally, there must be a finding that the off-premises employee is performing his or her workplace responsibilities at the time of the injury in order for the injury to be compensable,” wrote Chief Justice Deborah Poritz. There was little elaboration. “[T]he line is difficult to draw,” Poritz noted. Compensable deviations include telephone calls to doctors and babysitters and breaks for coffee and lunch, but do not include lunch-hour shopping or trips to a travel agent, Poritz said. In terms of the case at hand, while a trip to an off-premises post office for an off-premises employee does not fall within the minor deviation rule, a trip to an on-premises mailbox by an on-premises employee to pick up the same mail would, Poritz noted. It was on that last issue that Justices Virginia Long and James Zazzali based their dissent. The two theoretical mail errands are essentially identical, they wrote, especially as Jumpp’s errand had the permission of his employer. “People are not automatons,” says Jumpp’s lawyer, Carmine Taglialatella of Press & Taglialatella in Northfield, N.J. He notes that the purpose of the minor deviation rule is to account for the increased productivity that employers benefit from when workers are allowed to perform small personal tasks — such as using the bathroom or making a telephone call to a friend — while at work. “Bobby Jumpp was given the right to check his mail because his superiors thought this was a small price to pay for a worker who was doing his job well,” Taglialatella says. Ventnor’s lawyer, James Pietras of Pietras Saracino in Marlton, is surprised by the dissent. “It seemed to me that the two justices were more willing to look at the facts than the plain language of the statute. The statute clearly indicates that you have to be actively performing your job duties,” he says, “and this petitioner was not.” Justice Barry Albin did not participate in the decision.

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