Frett v. State Farm Emp. Workers' Comp.

Decision Date16 June 2020
Docket NumberS19G0447
Citation844 S.E.2d 749,309 Ga. 44
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Robert Eugene Bourne, Elliot Jackson Bourne, Bourne Law Firm, 106 Colony Park Dr., Suite 1000, Cumming, Georgia 30040, Nicholas Dale Benzine, Benzine Law Group, 3535 Roswell Road, Ste 9, Marietta, Georgia 30062, Attorneys for the Appellant.

Todd K. Maziar, Morgan & Morgan, PLLC, P.O. BOX 57007, Atlanta, Georgia 30343, Attorneys for the Amicus Appellant.

Charles E. Harris, IV, Karen G. Lowell, Swift Currie McGhee & Hiers LLP, 1355 Peachtree Street, N.E., Ste 300, Atlanta, Georgia 30309-1924, Attorneys for the Appellee.

Blackwell, Justice.

Rochelle Frett was injured when she slipped and fell at her place of employment during a scheduled lunch break. She filed a claim for benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, OCGA § 34-9-1 et seq., but the State Board of Workers’ Compensation denied her claim. Frett sought judicial review, and the superior court upheld the denial of her claim. Frett then appealed the decision of the superior court, and in Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, 348 Ga. App. 30, 821 S.E.2d 132 (2018), the Court of Appeals affirmed. Relying on Ocean Acc. & Guar. Corp. v. Farr, 180 Ga. 266, 178 S.E. 728 (1935), the Court of Appeals held that Frett suffered no injury compensable under the Act because she sustained her injury during a scheduled break, and her injury, therefore, did not arise out of her employment.1 We issued a writ of certiorari to reconsider Farr and review the decision of the Court of Appeals in this case. For the reasons that follow, we overrule Farr, and we reverse the decision below.

1. The facts in this case are undisputed and are summarized accurately in the opinion of the Court of Appeals:

At the time of the incident, Frett worked as an insurance claims associate for State Farm Insurance Companies ("State Farm"). Each workday, Frett had a mandatory, unpaid 45-minute lunch break. An automated system scheduled staggered lunch breaks to ensure enough associates were available to handle calls. After logging on for the day, Frett would see her schedule, including the time for her lunch break. At her scheduled lunch break time, Frett would log out of the phone system. All parties agree that Frett was free to do as she pleased on her break and could leave the office for lunch if she wished. Frett was not expected or asked to do work during her lunch breaks. Generally, Frett brought her lunch and would walk to the State Farm employee breakroom on her floor to prepare her food. During the spring and summer, she would eat her lunch on a bench outside of the office building or in her car in the parking lot. State Farm has a suite within the shared office building, but does not own the parking lot or the surrounding outdoor areas.
On the day of the incident, Frett logged out of the phone system at her assigned time and walked to the breakroom where she microwaved her food. As Frett started to exit the breakroom to take her lunch outside the building, she slipped on water and fell[, suffering an injury]. It is undisputed that Frett was still inside the breakroom when she fell.

Frett, 348 Ga. App. at 31, 821 S.E.2d 132.

Frett filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. After a hearing, an administrative law judge awarded benefits, but the appellate division of the Board later reversed the award and denied benefits. The Board found that Frett had not sustained a compensable injury under the Act because, although her injury "arose in the course of her employment, it did not arise out of her employment but, instead, arose out of a purely personal matter." Frett sought judicial review in the Superior Court of DeKalb County,2 which ultimately affirmed the denial of benefits. Frett then filed an application for discretionary review,3 and the Court of Appeals granted her application. See Frett, 348 Ga. App. at 30, 821 S.E.2d 132.

Affirming the judgment of the superior court, the Court of Appeals perceived a conflict in the case law with respect to the compensability of an injury that is sustained in circumstances like those presented here. Broadly speaking, one line of cases held that an injury may be compensable if it occurs as an employee is entering the premises of the employer to begin her work or exiting the premises when her work is done. This principle is commonly known as the "ingress and egress rule." See Frett, 348 Ga. App. at 33, 821 S.E.2d 132. Another line of cases, beginning with Farr, held that an injury is not compensable if it occurs during a "scheduled" break. These principles came into conflict, the Court of Appeals noted, in cases in which an employee was injured as she was leaving the premises of her employer at the beginning of a scheduled break or entering the premises at the end of a break. See id. at 34-35, 821 S.E.2d 132. Attempting to resolve this conflict, the Court of Appeals determined that its prior decisions applying the ingress and egress rule to scheduled lunch breaks were "an improper dilution" of Farr, and so, it "disapprove[d]" those decisions, noting that "any decision to apply the ingress and egress rule to the scheduled break exception should be made by our Supreme Court, particularly because the Supreme Court has never expressed its view on the ingress and egress rule generally." Id. at 36, 821 S.E.2d 132.

The Court of Appeals then concluded that Frett's injury was not compensable because it occurred during a scheduled lunch break, when she was "free to do as she pleased." Id.

2. The Workers’ Compensation Act provides for compensation for injuries that occur "in the course of" employment and "aris[e] out of" employment. See OCGA § 34-9-1 (4). These two prerequisites to compensation, which have remained unchanged since the original adoption of the Act in 1920, are "independent and distinct," and any claim for compensation under the Act must satisfy both prerequisites. See Mayor & Aldermen of Savannah v. Stevens, 278 Ga. 166, 166 (1), 598 S.E.2d 456 (2004). See also New Amsterdam Cas. Co. v. Sumrell, 30 Ga. App. 682, 687, 118 S.E. 786 (1923). The Court of Appeals below did not address the "in the course of" prerequisite. It instead held only that the injury sustained by Frett is not compensable because it did not "arise out of" her employment. See Frett, 348 Ga. App. at 36, 821 S.E.2d 132. For a proper analysis of this case, however, each prerequisite to compensation must be examined.

(a) In the Course of Employment. An injury arises "in the course of" employment when it "occurs within the period of the employment, at a place where the employee may be in performance of her duties and while she is fulfilling or doing something incidental to those duties." Hennly v. Richardson, 264 Ga. 355, 356 (1), 444 S.E.2d 317 (1994). This statutory prerequisite "relates to the time, place and circumstances under which the injury takes place." Potts v. UAP-Ga. Ag. Chem., Inc., 270 Ga. 14, 15, 506 S.E.2d 101 (1998). See also Stevens, 278 Ga. at 166 (1), 598 S.E.2d 456 ("An injury arises in the course of certain employment if the employee is engaged in that employment at the time the injury occurs.").

Injuries occurring "in the course of" employment certainly include injuries sustained when an employee is actually engaged in the performance of her assigned work, but they also include injuries sustained when the employee is engaged in activities "incidental" to her assigned work. See Hennly, 264 Ga. at 356 (1), 444 S.E.2d 317. Such incidental activities include, among other things, ingress and egress to the place of work while on the employer's premises. See Federal Ins. Co. v. Coram, 95 Ga. App. 622, 624, 98 S.E.2d 214 (1957) ("[G]oing to and from the parking lot in order to reach and leave her immediate working area was a necessary incident to the [worker's] employment."). See also Longuepee v. Georgia Institute of Technology, 269 Ga. App. 884, 885, 605 S.E.2d 455 (2004). Incidental activities also include the employee reasonably attending to routine personal needs, such as eating a meal or using the restroom. See, e.g., Thornton v. Hartford Acc. & Indem. Co., 198 Ga. 786, 788, 32 S.E.2d 816 (1945) ("Acts of ministration by a servant to himself, such as quenching his thirst [or] relieving his hunger[,] are incidents to his employment and acts of service therein within the workmen's compensation acts though they are only indirectly conducive to the purpose of the employment." (Citation and punctuation omitted.)); Harris v. Peach County Bd. of Commrs., 296 Ga. App. 225, 231, 674 S.E.2d 36 (2009) (same). See also 1 Douglas T. Lay, Kissiah and Lay's Georgia Workers’ Compensation Law § 5.08 (4th ed. 2017) ("An employee who, during the time period of his employment and on employment premises, engages in an act to minister to his personal comfort (whether it is satisfying his hunger, quenching his thirst, relieving himself, or otherwise), ordinarily does not leave the course of his employment by doing so ....").4 The latter principle is consistent with Farr, in which we assumed that a worker's injury that occurred while he was preparing to eat lunch at his job site occurred "in the course of" his employment. See Farr, 180 Ga. at 270, 178 S.E. 728. And we have directly applied this principle in a case in which a salesman on a business trip suffered a fatal accident while walking to his hotel from a café where he had eaten dinner. Thornton, 198 Ga. at 787, 32 S.E.2d 816. There, we held that the salesman's injury occurred "in the course of" his employment, and we reasoned that a traveling employee's lodging in a hotel "or preparing to eat, or while going to or returning from a meal" was conduct "incident to his employment, unless he steps aside from his employment for personal reasons." Id. at 790, 32 S.E.2d 816.5

Applying these principles to this case, we conclude that Frett sustained an injury "in the course of" her...

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