NJ Supreme Court Holds Parking Lot Accident Is Compensable

In Lapsley v. Township of Sparta (A-68/69-20/085422) (Decided January 18, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that injuries sustained in a parking lot owned and controlled by a New Jersey municipality were compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Facts of Lapsley v. Township of Sparta

Defendants Township of Sparta, Paul Austin, and Sparta Department of Public Works (collectively, defendants) challenged a denial of workers’ compensation benefits to plaintiff Diane Lapsley under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley was employed by the Township as a librarian for the Sparta Public Library. The library is in a municipal complex with athletic fields, offices, and three common-use parking lots. The Township owns and maintains the parking lots, which are open to Township employees and the general public alike. The Township did not direct employees to park in the parking lots, assign parking spaces for employees, or require permit or paid parking. Nor did the Township restrict employees’ manner of traveling between the parking lots and the library.

On February 3, 2014, Lapsley’s husband arrived at the library to drive Lapsley home. As they walked from the library to the car through the parking lot, they were suddenly struck by a snowplow owned by the Township and operated by Paul Austin, a Township employee. As a result, Lapsley suffered injuries to her leg requiring multiple surgeries and leaving her permanently disfigured. Lapsley filed a complaint against defendants in the Law Division and, later, a claim for workers’ compensation benefits against the Township in the Division of Workers’ Compensation.

The Division of Workers’ Compensation found that Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment and were therefore compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Lapsley appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding Lapsley’s injuries were not compensable under the Act.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Lapsley v. Township of Sparta

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “We find that Lapsley’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment because the parking lot where she was injured was owned and maintained by the Township, adjacent to her place of work, and used by Township employees to park,” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote. “We therefore conclude that Lapsley was entitled to benefits under the Act, and we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division.”

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court relied on the “premises rule” under the State’s Workers’ Compensation Act. It provides that “[e]mployment shall be deemed to commence when an employee arrives at the employer’s place of employment to report for work and shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’s place of employment, excluding areas not under the control of the employer.

Justice Fernandez-Vina went on to explain that to determine whether an injury is compensable, “[t]he pivotal questions under the premises rule are (1) where was the situs of the accident, and (2) did the employer have control of the property on which the accident occurred.” Kristiansen v. Morgan, 153 N.J. 298, 316-17 (1998). He further noted that the meaning of “control” under the Act is more expansive than under formal property concepts. As the court held in Kristiansen, “[C]ontrol exists when the employer owns, maintains, or has exclusive use of the property.”

Applying the premises rule, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that Lapsley is entitled to compensation under the Act. Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote:

The site of the accident was the parking lot adjacent to the library where Lapsley’s husband had parked; Lapsley stepped off the library curb directly into the parking lot before being injured there. The Township controlled that parking lot through its ownership and maintenance…The parties do not dispute the Township’s ownership or maintenance. The Township’s plowing of the parking lot of snow when the accident occurred visibly demonstrated the Township’s exercise of control over the lot. Also, the Township would have been aware that a library employee would park in the lot directly abutting the library.

The New Jersey Supreme Court further cited that the Township controlled this parking lot adjacent to Lapsley’s place of work. And the lot was available for use by employees of the adjacent library. “Therefore, we find Lapsley’s injuries arose out her employment and are compensable under the Act. That construction of the Act is consistent with its ‘broad remedial objective,’” Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote.

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