New Jersey Court: Coffee Break-Injury Gets Full Disability

January 26, 2010

A New Jersey plumber who was severely injured while driving to a coffee break can collect full workers’ compensation benefits, a Superior Court has ruled.

The decision centers on injuries suffered by Jesse J. Cooper Sr., a master plumber and foreman for Barnickel Enterprises, who used a company truck – which he was permitted to do – to make a quick run to a nearby coffee shop while waiting for a colleague.

Cooper was sent to meet with the colleague at a union hall in rural Winslow Township to review plans and details for a job they were scheduled to begin the following week. The colleague, however, was teaching a class and Cooper found himself with some time to spare, so he left to go for a coffee break at a deli about five miles down the street.

Several miles from the union hall, however, Cooper was involved in a serious accident and sustained multiple broken bones in his arms and legs.

The New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation awarded Cooper 100 percent compensation for his permanent and total disability injuries, a decision that Barnickel Enterprises appealed.

At issue in the case was a legal distinction of whether the coffee break arose in the course of Cooper’s employment. The compensation judge ruled that it was, distinguishing it from case law that barred compensation for employees who run personal errands.

The three-judge panel of the Superior Court’s Appellate Division agreed with the workers’ compensation judge.

Cooper, the court found, “was an ‘off-site’ employee who, facing an extended wait to consult with an expert concerning a work-related issue, was injured while driving for a cup of coffee. It cannot be expected that he would stand like a statue or remain at the union hall with nothing to do for such a period… We cannot conclude in these circumstances that the injuries were not compensable merely because petitioner chose to take his authorized ‘coffee break’ other than at the closest location.”

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