Deputy’s Death During Shift-Change Phone Call Not Compensable
On April 2, the Nebraska Court of Appeals upheld a Workers’ Compensation Court finding that the death of a Colfax County deputy sheriff during a cell phone call to exchange information with another deputy at the end of his shift was not compensable under workers’ compensation laws because it did not arise out of and in the course of his employment with the county.
Coughlin v. County of Colfax
, 27 Neb. App. 41, __ N.W.2d __ (2019), deputy sheriff Daniel Coughlin had clocked out after his shift ended and was on his cell phone exchanging shift-change information with his replacement during his drive home in his personal vehicle when he hit a deer carcass in the road and was killed. His brother filed a workers’ compensation claim on behalf of his daughter. The Workers’ Compensation Court dismissed the case, finding no causal connection between an employer-created condition and Coughlin’s death. It concluded that his death did not arise out of and in the course of his employment with the county. His brother appealed the decision to the Nebraska Court of Appeals.
The court applied the basic principles of worker’s compensation laws set out in Neb.Rev.Stat.
When personal injury is caused to an employee by accident or occupational disease, arising out of and in the course of his or her employment, such an employee shall receive compensation therefor from his or her employer if the employee was not willfully negligent at the time of receiving such injury.
This section places the burden on the employee to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the injury was both “arising out of” and “in the course of” employment. This is broadly categorized as the going to and from work rule. Injuries sustained by an employee while going to a fixed place of employment do not arise out of and in the course of employment unless a distinct causal connection exists between an employer-created condition and the occurrence of the injury.
Determining whether the employee had a fixed place of employment is the first step to this proof. Here, Coughlin had to report to the county courthouse before beginning his shifts. Deputies who lived outside of the county, like Coughlin, drove their personal vehicles to the courthouse and clocked in from their patrol cars at the sheriff’s department office. The patrol cars were garaged at the courthouse and returned at the end of their shifts. Deputies residing in the county drove their patrol cars home and were able clock in and out of work from there.
The court found these facts, in addition to Coughlin having removed his bulletproof vest, badge, weapon and handcuffs and placed them in the back seat of his personal vehicle, indicated that he had a fixed place of employment.
Next, the court examined whether there was an employer-related condition that rendered the going to and from work rule inapplicable. The relevant question was whether Coughlin’s use of his cell phone to communicate shift-change information while he was driving home was an employer-created condition. Although he was expected to exchange information at the end of his shift, the sheriff’s department did not prescribe any one way of doing so. The case contains summaries of testimony from several officers describing their own practices and that of the department for exchanging information, as well as practices and policies for using cell phones during driving a county-owned vehicle. The court determined that there were other methods to exchange information and that Coughlin’s use of his cell phone to exchange shift-change information while driving was not an employer-created condition.
Because an employer-created condition did not exist, the court did not go on to examine whether Coughlin’s accident was causally connected to his cell phone use. Such a causal relationship must exist between and employer-created condition and the occurrence of the injury.
It affirmed the workers’ compensation court’s conclusion that the going to and from work rule rendered the injuries in this case not compensable.
The full text of the case is available
ee the April 2, 2019 decisions of the Court of Appeals.
Editor's Note: Legal Line is a feature that will periodically appear in NACO E-Line. This article has been prepared by Beth Ferrell of the NACO legal staff. Legal Line is not intended to serve as legal advice. Rather, it is published to alert readers to court decisions and legal or advisory matters important to county government. For a specific opinion on how the information contained in this article or that which will be discussed in future issues relates to your county, consult your county attorney or personal counsel.