Judge rules for widow in workers' comp case - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Judge rules for widow in workers' comp case

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Posted: Friday, December 11, 2009 4:07 pm | Updated: 1:57 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Employers that provide vehicles for their workers can end up liable for workers' compensation benefits if the employees get into an accident, even one that occurs after they leave work, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled.

The judges rejected arguments by Pima County that it was not responsible for paying benefits to the widow of Robert Hooker, who was killed in a car crash while on his way to meet his wife for dinner. The court concluded that the mishap could be considered a work-related injury.

Hooker, 65, was employed by the county as its public defender. In 2008, while driving a county-owned sport utility vehicle, he was involved in a crash.

Police said the other driver, Alexander Rodriguez, was drag racing another vehicle when his car struck the one Hooker was driving. Rodriguez eventually pleaded guilty to several charges, including reckless manslaughter.

Hooker's widow filed a claim with the state Industrial Commission for compensation. A hearing officer eventually found the claim to be a work-related accident that required compensation, resulting in the appeal.

Appellate Judge Joseph Howard said that, generally speaking, when an employee is injured in an accident on the way to or from work, that incident is not considered to have occurred "in the course and scope of employment," the test for when injuries or death are covered by workers' compensation laws.

But Howard said there are exceptions. One of those is when the vehicle was provided to the worker by the employer and the travel time appears to benefit the employer. He said that whether the exception applies is determined by looking at all the circumstances of any given case.

Here, Howard said, the administrative law judge concluded that Pima County benefited from furnishing a vehicle to Hooker.

He said the evidence showed that Hooker accepted the job at least in part because he would get the vehicle. Howard also noted that Hooker used the vehicle to attend work-related engagements and conducted work from his vehicle on his cell phone.

An attorney for the county and its insurance carrier, however, countered that this particular trip was not between Hooker's home and work but instead between his office and a restaurant. Howard, however, said that is legally irrelevant.

Nor was the appellate court persuaded by arguments that this particular trip did not benefit the county as Hooker's employer. The judges said Arizona case law says that courts must look at the larger question, including whether the employer benefited overall from being able to recruit and retain employees.

"Provision of the car was an important factor in Hooker's decision to take the job with Pima County," Howard wrote of the findings of the administrative law judge. "And the benefit to the county is buttressed by his use of the vehicle at various times to attend meetings and call his assistants from the road." 

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