Georgia Court of Appeals Reverses Workers’ Compensation Board Ruling

photo_1525_20060508Although they are designed to provide efficient and speedy financial recovery to injured employees, workers’ compensation schemes can and do occasion protracted legal battles that are not dissimilar from the tort litigation for which they were intended to substitute. Indeed, it is not uncommon, considering the amount that can be at stake, for workers’ compensation claims to lead to full-blown cases litigated outside the administrative setting. For instance, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently rendered a decision in Bonner-Hill v. Southland Waste Systems, Inc., which dealt with the denial of workers’ compensation benefits to the widow whose husband died on the job.

The widow’s deceased husband worked at Southland Waste Systems of Georgia, Inc. at a facility located off State Road 247. Running parallel to State Road 247 is a Georgia Southern and Florida railway track, which must be crossed in order to access the Southland facility. Only a month after starting his job at Southland, the deceased person was driving to work along State Road 247. When the deceased person turned onto the entrance road for the Southland facility, a northbound train struck his vehicle. The collision resulted in significant injuries that ultimately led to his death. Following this incident, the deceased person’s widow filed a workers’ compensation claim, which Southland challenged, arguing that the deceased person did not die “during the course of his employment.” At an initial administrative hearing, the Administrative Law Judge determined that the death was compensable because the access road that crossed the railway track was the only way to access the facility, and therefore the road was part of the business premises. However, the Workers’ Compensation Board reversed this decision. The Board held that, since Southland did not own, operate, or control the entrance road, the deceased person had not yet arrived to work at the time of the accident. Consequently, his death was not compensable.

The Georgia Court of Appeals, however, reversed the Board’s determination. Under Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act, a worker is entitled to compensation for injuries that arise out of and in the course of employment. See O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1 (4). Generally, injuries “out of and in the course of employment” are not considered to include injuries caused by hazards encountered while going to or returning from work. Longuepee v. Ga. Institute of Technology, 269 Ga. App. 884, 885 (605 SE2d 455) (2004). However, an exception to this general rule exists for injuries occurring when an employee is engaged in ingress or egress at the particular work site, for the employee “has not started traveling a route of his choosing wholly disconnected with his employment.” Hill v. Omni Hotel at CNN Center, 268 Ga. App. 144, 147 (601 SE2d 472) (2004). For the ingress/egress exception to apply, the area where the employee was injured must either be limited (or very nearly so) to the respondent business, even if the business’s right to the area is merely a leasehold interest or some other non-exclusive access, Knight-Ridder Newspaper Sales, Inc. v. Desselle, 176 Ga. App. 174, 174-175 (335 SE2d 458) (1985), or owned, maintained, or controlled by the business, even though the area is heavily traversed by the public without connection to the business, Longuepee, 269 Ga. App. at 885.

In this case, the Court of Appeals found that the Board erred when in reversed the ALJ’s award of benefits, for the area where the deceased person was injured was part of the employer’s business. The terms of Southland’s lease of the land includes two acres of property west of State Route 247, within which the railroad tracks where the deceased person was injured are located. In fact, the lease specifically stated that the premises “shall include access to the property . . . over [the] entrance road,” which, as noted above, was the only route to access the work facility. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the deceased person had arrived at work at the time of the collision and that the ingress/egress exception applied. Thus, the deceased person’s widow was entitled to receive compensation, since this death occurred out of and in the course of the deceased’s employment.

Although certainly not every workers’ compensation claim will require a trip to the Court of Appeals, proving one’s entitlement to benefits can often be a more involved undertaking than simply submitting a form. Indeed, considerable sums of money can be on the line, and employers – or in many cases their insurers – will often challenge even meritorious claims. Accordingly, if you’ve recently been injured on the job and are considering filing a workers’ compensation claim, you should deeply consider enlisting the aid of legal counsel who can provide competent assistance should foreseen or unforeseen complexities arise. The Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have many years of experience dealing with often intractable employers and insurance companies and are prepared to offer you the benefit of their skill. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a free case evaluation.

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