Britt v. Shelby County Health Care Auth.

Decision Date13 April 2001
Citation850 So.2d 322
PartiesDebra L. BRITT v. SHELBY COUNTY HEALTH CARE AUTHORITY d/b/a Shelby Medical Center.
CourtAlabama Court of Civil Appeals

James M. Patton of Patton & Veigas, P.C., Birmingham, for appellant.

Mark W. Lee and Dorothy A. Powell of Parsons, Lee & Juliano, P.C., Birmingham; and Michael J. Cohan of Webb & Eley, P.C., Montgomery, for appellee. CRAWLEY, Judge.

In 1995, Debra L. Britt was employed as a respiratory technician at Shelby Medical Center ("the Hospital").1 She worked weekend double shifts—16 hours on Saturdays and 16 hours on Sundays, with an 8-hour break between shifts. At the end of her second shift, on Sunday night, February 26, 1995, Britt was driving home from work when she fell asleep. She was seriously injured when her car crossed the median and overturned.

Britt sued the Hospital, alleging both a tort claim based on negligence and a workers' compensation claim. On the negligence claim, the circuit court entered a summary judgment for the Hospital. On the workers' compensation claim, the court conducted a bench trial and then entered a judgment for the Hospital. The court's judgment is accompanied by the following order:

"This matter came on for trial on April 5, 2000. Plaintiff originally pled two alternative theories of recovery. The first was a traditional tort theory of recovery based upon negligence. The Court entered Summary Judgment in favor of Defendant on the tort claim on October 7, 1998. Plaintiff's second claim is under the statutory scheme provided by the [Workers'] Compensation Act of Alabama.
"Plaintiff regularly worked two (2) sixteen (16) hour shifts each weekend, separated by eight (8) hours. She claims this work schedule caused fatigue which led to her injuries. On February 26, 1995, Plaintiff reported to work at approximately 6:30 a.m. and left work at approximately 11:00 p.m. While traveling home in her personal automobile, she was involved in a single car accident for which she now claims [workers'] compensation benefits. The Court finds that Plaintiff fell asleep while driving home thereby causing her automobile accident.
"It is well established in Alabama that accidents and injuries which occur while an employee is traveling to or from their place of employment are not compensable because they do not arise out of, nor do they occur during the course of employment. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. v. Smallwood, 516 So.2d 716 (Ala.Civ.App. 1987). Although the specific issue raised in this case has not been previously addressed [in Alabama], Alabama courts have addressed several other exceptions to the general rule. See Minor v. Alabama Specialties, Inc., 598 So.2d 938 (Ala.Civ.App.1992) (employer may be liable where the employer provides transportation to or from work); Tucker v. Die-Matic Tool Co., 652 So.2d 263 (Ala.Civ.App.1994) (employer may be liable where the employee is still `on duty' and acting in furtherance of the employer's interest, also known as the `dual purpose doctrine'); Terry v. NTN-Bower Corp., 615 So.2d 629 (Ala.Civ.App. 1992) (employer may be liable if the employer has control over the instrumentality and the accident occurs in an area adjacent to the workplace).

"In this case it is undisputed that the Plaintiff was in her personal car, that she was not still on duty or acting in furtherance of [the Hospital's] interest, and that the accident did not occur in an area where [the Hospital] exerted any control over Plaintiff. When Plaintiff accepted employment with [the Hospital] as a Respiratory Technician, she knew that she would be required to work on Saturdays and Sundays, each day consisting of a 16 hour shift. She had worked these shifts for approximately one year before the accident.

"The parties cite various cases from other jurisdictions as persuasive authority, including Swanson v. Fairway Foods, 439 N.W.2d 722, 723 (Minn.1989), and Hed v. Brockway Glass Co., 309 Minn. 73, 244 N.W.2d 28 (1976). See Brunson Milling Co. v. Grimes, 267 Ala. 395, 103 So.2d 315 (1958). As in the Swanson case, the facts in this case are tragic, but under the current statutory scheme and present case law, this Court finds that there is no basis for compensability under the Alabama [Workers'] Compensation Act."

Britt appealed to this court. We affirm the judgment as to the workers' compensation claim, but reverse the judgment as to the negligence claim and remand the cause for further proceedings.

I. The Workers' Compensation Claim

Britt testified that she thought the length and conditions of her shift at work caused the fatigue that led to her falling asleep on the drive home from work. She described her job duties as long, gruelling, and stressful. At trial, Britt introduced the deposition testimony of two expert witnesses who stated that, because of her unusually long shifts and the short interval between shifts, she was at a higher risk for fatigue and the effects of sleep deprivation than other employees in the general population. Both experts said that sleep deprivation was a factor in causing Britt's accident. Britt also introduced several articles and studies from the National Sleep Foundation and the National Traffic Safety Administration finding a correlation between extended shift hours and fatigue-related automobile accidents.

Both experts gave their opinion that Britt's risk of fatigue while driving was not minimized by the fact that she had weekdays off or that she had been working the same shifts for a year. They stated that the human body cannot "bank sleep," or properly adjust to a lack of sleep that recurs two out of every seven days.

Generally, an accident that occurs while a worker is traveling to or from work is not considered to arise out of and in the course of employment, for purposes of workers' compensation law. See Hughes v. Decatur Gen. Hosp., 514 So.2d 935 (Ala.1987); Process Equip., Inc. v. Quinn, 701 So.2d 29 (Ala.Civ.App.1997). This principle is known as the "going-and-coming rule." See A. Larson, Larson's Workers' Compensation Law § 13.01 (2000). As the trial court's order points out, Alabama has recognized several exceptions to the rule, none of which applies here. Britt was not paid for her travel time to and from work or reimbursed for her travel expenses; she was not acting in furtherance of any job duties at the time of her accident; and she was not performing any act on behalf of the Hospital during the drive home.

Although no Alabama decisions address the issue presented here, the decisions of Minnesota courts, construing the Minnesota workers' compensation laws, are persuasive, because our compensation act was patterned after the Minnesota act. See Brunson Milling Co. v. Grimes, 267 Ala. 395, 103 So.2d 315 (1958). As the trial court's order indicates, two Minnesota decisions are instructive. See Swanson v. Fairway Foods, 439 N.W.2d 722 (Minn. 1989), and Hed v. Brockway Glass Co., 309 Minn. 73, 244 N.W.2d 28 (1976).

In Hed, the worker was a 50-year-old bricklayer who worked 9 hours and 15 minutes laying 12-pound firebrick in the hot floor of a glass furnace. The normal workday for a bricklayer was eight hours. At the end of the day, a co-employee, noticing that the worker looked exhausted, offered to drive the worker home or to follow him home, but the worker said he was fine. The worker left in his car; about a mile from the plant, the worker fell asleep at the wheel. He was injured when his car left the roadway and hit a tree. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed an award of workers' compensation benefits, stating that one could reasonably infer from the evidence that "the employee lost consciousness before losing control of his automobile and that it was caused directly by fatigue resulting from his employment." 309 Minn. at 77,244 N.W.2d at 30.

In Swanson, the worker was a part-time manual laborer at a food warehouse. He normally worked the night shift from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., and he was on call seven days a week. The worker worked his normal hours for two nights and was then off for 24 hours. The next day, the worker arose at 6:00 a.m., did farm chores, and worked until 8:00 p.m. remodeling a building in which his wife's catering business was located. At 9:00 p.m., the worker was called to work at the food warehouse. He arrived at 9:50 p.m. and performed his usual duties until 5:00 a.m. the next morning. On the drive home, he fell asleep at the wheel and was killed when his car traveled down an embankment and hit a tree.

Relying on Hed, the administrative law judge awarded workers' compensation dependency benefits. Concluding that Hed did not apply, however, the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals reversed. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed that reversal, explaining that neither the "special-errand" nor the "special-hazard" exception to the "going-and-coming" rule applied.

The court stated that "[t]he special-errand rule is invoked when employees with regular hours [are] required to work overtime under circumstances that [make] the travel to and from work more hazardous." Swanson, 439 N.W.2d at 724 (citing A. Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation, §§ 16.00, 16.14 (1985)). The court explained that the "special-errand" exception did not apply in Swanson because the worker "did not work regular hours." 439 N.W.2d at 724.

The court stated that "[t]he [special-hazard] exception is applicable only if by virtue of the employment the employee is exposed to a hazard which originates on the employment premises, is a part of the working environment, or if it peculiarly exposes the employee to an external hazard which subjects the employee to a greater personal risk than one has when pursuing ordinary personal affairs." 439 N.W.2d at 724 (quoting Gibberd v. Control Data Corp., 424 N.W.2d 776, 783 (Minn. 1988)). The special-hazard exception did not apply in Swanson because the hazard to which the worker was exposed—the conditions leading...

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