The Commonwealth Court has denied workers’ compensation benefits to a man whose thumb was degloved while polishing a bolt on his child’s go-cart on the grounds that the task was unrelated to his job duties.

In overturning the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board’s decision in Trigon Holdings v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Griffith), the court recognized that the case law in this area has been “strained” because of various rulings, making “clear and consistent application of the law difficult.”

Acknowledging that, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne E. Covey described the basis of the court’s ruling being grounded in the fact that claimant Kenneth Griffith was working outside the scope of his employment.

“In order to be compensable, [Griffith's] activity at the time of his injury had to either be ‘in furtherance’ of [his] employer’s business or affairs or ’caused by’ the operation of [his] employer’s business or affairs,” Covey said in the opinion. “[Griffith's] injury occurred after he made a decision to leave his work responsibilities and while he was performing a personal task unrelated to his job duties while using a dangerous piece of equipment on the employer’s premises during work hours.”

Covey was joined by Judges P. Kevin Brobson and Renee Cohn Jubelirer.

According to the opinion, Griffith is an employee of Trigon Holdings Inc., a company that finishes medical and aerospace industry parts. According to Covey, Griffith’s job duties include examining and troubleshooting company equipment and providing tooling for machinery operators when necessary.

Covey’s opinion noted that on May 30, 2008, after Griffith ensured that the company’s machines were running smoothly, he told fellow employees that he would be in the tool and die room “for a couple of minutes” if they needed him. Approximately five minutes later, while polishing a bolt for his child’s go-cart with an emery cloth, Griffith’s left thumb was caught in a lathe and the skin and tissue of the thumb were stripped to the bone, the opinion said.

After Griffith was released from the hospital, his employer suspended him for five days on the grounds of performing personal work on company time with company equipment, Covey said. Subsequently, Trigon Holdings denied Griffith’s August 2008 workers’ compensation claim that his left thumb was “degloved” during the course of his employment.

A March 2010 hearing resulted in the workers’ compensation judge granting Griffith’s claim petition, awarding him total disability benefits from May 30, 2008, to December 1, 2008, plus interest, as well as litigation costs, attorney fees and reimbursement of subrogation liens for medical expenses. In response, Trigon Holdings appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

For the Commonwealth Court, the issue came down to the fact that what Griffith was doing had nothing to do with his job.

“[Griffith] had abandoned his work responsibilities and was deliberately engaged in an activity wholly foreign thereto, i.e., polishing a bolt for his child’s go-cart,” Covey said. “Accordingly, the [Workers' Compensation Appeal] Board erred by affirming the [worker's compensation judge's] determination.”

Covey noted the WCJ’s opinion said that “‘a small temporary departure from work does not break the course of employment.’” However, she countered by claiming that there is no specific legal measurement to determine what constitutes a significant or minor departure from one’s duties, further lending to the obscurity of the law in this case.

Griffith also claimed that he had permission from his foreman, Michael Findle, to go to the tool and die department to do personal work at any time, according to Covey. Griffith also maintained that it was general knowledge that employees performed personal tasks while working for Trigon Holdings.

“[Griffith] specifically recalled seeing other employees making vehicle axles, sharpening lawnmower blades and sandblasting nonwork-related objects at work,” Covey said.

However, David Tenison, senior vice president and general manager of Trigon Holdings, testified that he was unaware of an instance in which employees did personal work on Trigon Holdings’ equipment or time and he said Griffith’s activities were “unacceptable,” according to Covey.

Covey said it didn’t matter if other employees worked on personal projects. What mattered was that Griffith wasn’t engaged in his normal work duties.

“Here, whether or not [Trigon Holdings] may have permitted [Griffith] to conduct personal work on its machinery during work hours, and regardless of whether he was gone from the machine shop for only five minutes when he sustained his injury, his departure from the course of his employment was strongly marked and not trivial, insignificant or minor in influence,” Covey said, referencing U.S. Airways v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Dixon).

Covey also cited the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s cautioning in Ginther v. J.P. Graham Transfer that workers’ compensation possessed “certain limitations beyond which it was not the intention of the legislature to extend responsibility of an employer for injuries sustained by an employee. The act was never intended to make the employer an insurer of the safety of all employees.”

P.J. D’Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or pdannunzio@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter 
@PJDannunzioTLI.

(Copies of the 11-page opinion in Trigon Holdings v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Griffith), PICS No. 13-2352, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)