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Injury while on lunch break; is it workers' compensation in North Carolina?

The Court of Appeals recently dealt with the issue of an injury to an employee while on an employer mandated lunch break in the case of Mintz v. Verizon Wireless, COA12-306, 2012 WL 5846239 (N.C. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2012). The Court agreed with the Industrial Commission and found that there is a causal relationship between plaintiff's employment and her injury because she incurred her injury based on a condition in her workplace. "Plaintiff was injured in a common area of the building, and the record indicates that employees were not only authorized but also encouraged to go to the first floor since Eurst, the cafeteria for employees, was located there, and employees had authorization to walk through the hallways on the first floor. Thus, we affirm the Full Commission's conclusion that plaintiff's injury "arose out of" her employment." Mintz v. Verizon Wireless, COA12-306, 2012 WL 5846239 (N.C. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2012). Defendants argued: (1) plaintiff's injury did not occur at a time reasonably related to her employment since she was on an unpaid lunch break; (2) defendant-employer did not control or own the building where defendant was injured; and (3) plaintiff was not engaged in activities related to her employment. The Court of Appeals disagreed for the reasons below. "With regard to determining whether an injury occurs "in the course of" employment, this Court has concluded that The words [i]n the course of have reference to the time, place and circumstances under which the accident occurred. Clearly, a conclusion that the injury occurred in the course of employment is required where there is evidence that it occurred during the hours of employment and at the place of employment while the claimant was actually in the performance of the duties of the employment. Harless, 1 N.C.App. at 455-56, 162 S.E.2d at 52. With regard to the time element, "the course of employment begins a reasonable time before actual work begins and continues for a reasonable time after work ends and includes intervals during the work day for rest and refreshment." Id. at 456, 162 S.E.2d at 53 (emphasis added). Defendants allege that this element is not met because plaintiff was on an unpaid lunch break. The Full Commission determined that plaintiff's injury occurred during a time in her work day "built in for the employees' rest and refreshment." Moreover, the Full Commission noted that defendant-employer requires its employees to take an hour-long lunch break. While defendants focus on the fact that plaintiff was injured during an unpaid break to support their argument that the injury did not occur at a time reasonably related to her employment, we have no support in our caselaw for the proposition that the element of time is not established if an employee is on an unpaid break. Here, plaintiff's injury occurred during the hours of employment, even though it happened during an unpaid break. Thus, the Full Commission's conclusion accurately reflects that "in the course of" includes times during the workday for rest and refreshment. See Harless, 1 N.C.App. at 456, 162 S.E.2d at 53. Therefore, we affirm the Full Commission's conclusion of law with regard to the element of time. With regard to the element of place, defendants contend that the Full Commission's conclusion of law no. 5 was erroneous. Moreover, defendants allege that findings of fact nos. 4-8, to the extent they infer defendant-employer maintained or controlled the building, were not supported by competent evidence. Place is considered the "premises of the employer." Harless, 1 N.C.App. at 456, 162 S.E.2d at 52. While the Full Commission noted in its findings that defendant-employer no longer owned the building where plaintiff worked, it indicated that "[d]efendant[e] mployer continued to be the main tenant in the building and maintained and controlled all activities occurring in the building." These findings were supported by competent evidence in the record that established all other contractors in the building, including the cleaning contractors, mail room, security, and Eurst, provided services to defendant-employer. Moreover, the only other business, Strayer University, offered services exclusively to employees of defendant-employer. Based on these findings, the Full Commission concluded that because "an accident may be compensable if it occurs on the premises of the employer or adjacent premises that are owned or controlled by the employer[,]" the element of place was met because defendant-employer "still essentially controlled the building, including the common area in which [p]laintiff fell." In support of its conclusion, the Full Commission cited Strickland v. King, 293 N.C. 731, 239 S.E.2d 243 (1977), and Bass v. Mecklenburg County, 258 N.C. 226, 128 S.E.2d 570 (1962). In Bass, our Supreme Court noted that "injuries sustained by an employee while going to or from his place of work upon premises owned or controlled by his employer are generally deemed to have arisen out of and in the course of the employment ... provided the employee's act involves no unreasonable delay." 258 N.C. at 232, 128 S.E.2d at 574. Here, there was competent evidence that plaintiff was injured on premises essentially controlled by defendant-employer while she was returning to her cubicle from the first floor of the building during her lunch break. Thus, the conclusion that the element of place was met is justified, and defendants' argument is without merit. See, Mintz v. Verizon Wireless, COA12-306, 2012 WL 5846239 (N.C. Ct. App. Nov. 20, 2012). Thus the Court of Appeals confirmed that Plaintiff was within the Course AND Scope of her employment at the time of her injury. Visit our website for more information on North Carolina workers' compensation.

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