Is an employee who quits her job then injures herself before she gets out the door still covered by workers’ comp? In a recent Tennessee case of first impression, the court ruled that after an employee says “I quit,” the employee remains employed for a “reasonable period of time” to “effectuate the termination of her employment.” Injuries occurring within that reasonable length of time are covered under workers’ comp.
Melissa Duck worked as a clerk at a convenience store. When she clocked in for work one day, her immediate supervisor, Jason Stanford, was defrosting and cleaning an ice cream freezer. Mr. Stanford asked Ms. Duck to work the cash register while he finished cleaning the freezer. Ms. Duck said she did not want to run the cash register. Mr. Stanford then asked if she would like to instead clean the ice cream freezer while he operated the cash register. Ms. Duck refused to do that as well.
Ms. Duck then began gathering her personal belongings. Mr. Stanford asked if she was leaving, and she replied “yes.” Then, Mr. Stanford asked if she was quitting, and she responded “yes!” As she was leaving, Ms. Duck slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the floor next to the ice cream freezer that she had just refused to clean. She felt pain in her lower back, left arm, and her shoulder, and she did not report to work again.
About two months later, she filed a workers’ comp claim. The company’s insurer denied the claim because the injury did not occur during the course and scope of her employment (since she had quit before she was injured). Ms. Duck pursued the claim and the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims ruled in her favor, finding that she remained in the course and scope of employment “for a reasonable period of time to exit the premises of her employment.” The employer appealed, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board ruled for the company, holding that the injury did not arise in the course and scope of employment because the employment relationship ended before the fall.
The Tennessee Supreme Court’s “Reasonable Time” Approach
Ms. Duck appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and her persistence paid off. The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel held that:
“an employee whose employment is terminated remains covered by the Workers’ Compensation statutes for a reasonable period of time for the employee to effectuate the termination of employment, such as by gathering belongings and exiting the workplace.”
In this case, Ms. Duck remained covered by workers’ comp while she was leaving the worksite (1) “because the injury occurred within a reasonable time after termination of her employment” and (2) “because walking to the door of the convenience store to exit the workplace was a normal incident of the employment relation.” The appellate panel recognized in making its decision that this case “involves facts that are arguably not sympathetic to the claimant.”
In adopting this “reasonable time” approach, Tennessee joined a majority of jurisdictions that follow a similar rule (including Alabama, Florida, and Georgia). Some jurisdictions (for example, Nevada) have an “immediate termination approach,” which means that an employee’s workers’ comp coverage “terminates immediately when an employee quits or is fired.” This immediate termination approach is the minority rule, however.
If you have an employee who gets injured while he or she is in the process of quitting, check your state law. In most jurisdictions, including Tennessee, just because an employee quits does not mean that she loses her workers’ compensation rights.
Employers should take safeguards, if possible, to make sure that separated employees leave the premises safely after they have resigned or have been discharged. Otherwise, you may end up paying for an employee’s workers’ comp claim, even after an employee (no matter how disrespectfully) has quit. On balance, that might be better than having to deal with the former employee’s tort claim . . . just sayin’.