Wednesday, May 21, 2014
C.A. Rules for State in Dispute Over Prison Worker’s Death
Panel Says Need to Work Extra Shift Does Not Qualify for ‘Going-and-Coming’ Exception
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A corrections officer who was killed in an auto collision while returning home after working a double shift did not die in the course of his employment, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The panel agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board that the family of Seth Lantz, a 33-year-old correctional officer killed on his way home from his post at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga in 2010, does not qualify for death benefits. The court and the WCAB rejected the contention that Lantz’s death was compensable under the “special mission” exception to the “going-and-coming” rule.
According to the evidence at trial on the family’s benefits claim, Lantz had worked in Kern County until he was promoted and transferred to Pleasant Valley about two years before his death. He continued to live in the Bakersfield area, commuting about 85 miles each way to work.
His normal shift was 2 to 10 p.m., with Sundays and Mondays off. He generally worked overtime two or three times per month.
On Friday, Oct. 1, 2010, he was informed in the afternoon that he would have to hold over to serve as watch commander from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., pursuant to a contract between his union and the state. Under that pact, if it was necessary to replace the scheduled watch commander for a shift, that duty would fall to the least senior qualified officer on the prior shift, unless a more senior officer volunteered, subject to a limit of two such assignments in a week.
Lantz was the least senior officer on his shift who qualified as watch commander. He worked the “hold over” shift and headed home, before being involved in the fatal collision on I-5 in Kern County.
The workers’ compensation judge who presided over the trial ruled for the family, under a version of the going-and-coming rule that treats an injury while traveling to or from work as job-related if the travel isn’t “local” and the employee is not traveling to or from “a fixed place of business at a fixed time.” The WCJ reasoned that Lantz’s commute was too long to be considered local, and that—because he had worked beyond his usual shift—he was not traveling at a fixed time.
The WCAB disagreed, holding that Lantz’s regular commute, while lengthy, was still “local” within the meaning of the rule. Nor did the fact he had worked an extra shift, as he had on past occasions, mean that he was not traveling at a “fixed time,” the board said.
The board also rejected the contention that the special-mission exception applied. To qualify, the board explained, it had to be shown that the situation surrounding the commute was “extraordinary.”
Requiring an officer to hold over to serve as watch commander was not extraordinary, the board said, and in fact was sufficiently common to have been made part of the collective bargaining agreement.
Justice Donald Franson Jr., writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed.
“Cases that result in coverage usually can be explained on the grounds that it is unfair for the employee to have no coverage where the employer exercised control over the employee’s commute, the employer reaped some benefit not typically associated with ordinary employee travel, or both,” he wrote.
Franson cited Hinojosa v. Workmen’s Comp. Appeals Bd. (1972) 8 Cal.3d 150 , which held that a worker who was required to provide his own transportation while traveling among several ranches owned by his employer provided the employer with a special benefit and was within the scope of his employment when commuting home.
In Lantz’s case, Franson wrote, the decedent was driving home from his usual place of work, did not have to make an extra trip, was required to work overtime on various occasions, and was performing work during the overtime shift that was not significantly different from his usual work, supporting the WCAB’s conclusion that the trip home was not extraordinary and did not qualify as a special mission.
The case is Lantz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 14 S.O.S. 2479.
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