Flying the Friendly Skies When It Is – or Is Not – Compensable
While the facts that follow are from an actual case in another jurisdiction, substantive workers’ compensation laws and legal doctrines are very similar from state to state. Names and location have been changed to help facilitate an objective look at facts and legal doctrine. How would you decide if the following case came before you in Florida?
Lori Coolidge, a flight attendant for a popular southern airline, lived in Orlando, but her home base airport was in Miami. She regularly commuted to and from work on the airline’s flights between the two cities.
One day, after her shift had ended, she boarded a flight from Miami to Orlando by using a passenger’s ticket. After sitting down and talking to other passengers, she was injured when another passenger dropped his carry-on bag from an overhead bin onto her head. Coolidge filed a workers’ compensation claim. The airline’s carrier denied the claim, saying the injury did not occur within the course and scope of her employment.
The workers’ compensation board denied the claim and Coolidge appealed to the courts. The carrier moved for summary judgment and dismissal, saying that because Coolidge was not injured in the course and scope of employment, there was no compensable injury. The court agreed, and issued an order in the carrier’s favor. Coolidge appealed.
At the appellate court level, Coolidge argued that she had presented some evidence that she was injured within the course and scope of employment. She specifically argued that her injury occurred in the course and scope of employment because:
a) The flight furthered the airline’s affairs; and,
b) Her boarding of the flight fell within the access doctrine.
The carrier argued that Coolidge boarded the flight for the sole purpose of commuting home and that the access doctrine was inapplicable to the case.
Unfortunately, Coolidge was unable to present any evidence that she would have boarded the flight for any other reason than to commute to Orlando. She did, however, argue that under the “access” doctrine (a legal doctrine very similar to the premises doctrine), an employee who uses a route or area that is so closely related to the employer’s premises as to be fairly treated as a part of the premises, and is injured while so engaged, is considered to be in the course and scope of employment; thus, the injury is compensable. Such “ingress to and egress from” the employee’s work can also fall within the access doctrine if the employer has directed the employee use to a particular access route or area as a special mode of access.
In its decision, the appellate court began by addressing whether or not Collins was “a) furthering the airline’s affairs” by getting on to the flight.
“Collins concedes that she boarded the flight to commute home to Orlando,” the court wrote. “Her flight, therefore, furthered her private affairs of commuting. Even assuming that Collins furthered the airline’s affairs by boarding the flight, her travel would constitute dual-purpose travel. This state’s workers’ compensation act generally excludes from the course and scope of employment dual-purpose travel, which is travel that furthers both an employer’s affairs as well as the private affairs of an employee.”
The appellate court also noted that Coolidge could point to no evidence in the record that she would have boarded the flight for any other reason than to commute to Orlando. Therefore, the court concluded that there was no evidence that the flight was within the course and scope of employment. Next, the court addressed the access doctrine.
“Under the access doctrine, an employee suffers an injury in the course and scope of employment when she is injured using a route or area that is so closely related to the employer’s premises as to be fairly treated as a part of the premises,” the court explained. “Ingress to and egress from work falls within the access doctrine if the employer has evidenced its intent that the employee use a particular access route or area as a special mode of access.”
The court added that the doctrine is not intended to cover injuries arising out of risks that the public generally faces. The court noted that Coolidge presented no evidence that the incident that caused her injury was a risk she faced as an employee seeking to ingress or egress from her workplace. Instead, the risk appeared to be a risk that she faced as a member of the general public.
“When Coolidge’s last working flight landed, she chose to commute home as a passenger rather than as a working flight attendant,” the appellate court reasoned. “Thus, the cause of her injury was a risk that any passenger on any flight on any commercial airline would encounter. Her injury therefore resulted from a risk that she encountered as a member of the traveling public, rather than a risk that derived from her employment or that she encountered by virtue of her employment with the airline.
Let’s hope the claimant’s lawyer did not get her hopes up on this case or make any promises as to the viability of her arguments, given these facts, as it would have been a weak case at best. Legal doctrines on both the “access” and “premises” doctrines are fairly well established,…and absent some really strong fact patterns (which did not exist here), this case was a loser from the start. One wonders if the claimant or her attorney had an opportunity to accept some form of compromise settlement prior to going “all the way” through the courts.
One final note: If she was not in the course and scope of employment, and was merely another customer of member of the general public, then wouldn’t an attempt at making a personal injury claim be a better gamble? And given the final result of this case, could she still present a personal injury claim? For those in claims who have multi-line experience, you’re in a better position to answer these questions. If you do not, then these are questions for a later day…