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Split court denies benefits for traveling employee

Posted On: Mar. 14, 2024 12:13 PM CST


A divided Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that a traveling employee was not entitled to benefits for his alleged injuries from a car accident that happened returning from an unauthorized trip home.

Willie Rambo was working for Kelly Natural Gas Pipelines LLC in February 2020 when he was part of a crew assigned to a job site in Greenwood, Mississippi, while living more than 140 miles away in Bay Springs, Mississippi, according to Rambo v. Kelly Natural Gas Pipelines LLC.

During the workweek, he stayed at a motel paid for by his employer. Mr. Rambo rode with his foreman and another worker, as they also lived in Bay Springs. While the foreman had been assigned a company truck, it was Mr. Rambo who usually drove the vehicle and would park it at his home.

As weather conditions made it impossible to work, the three went home from the motel midweek. On the return trip the next day, Mr. Rambo was involved in an accident in which he did not report injuries immediately.

Several days later, Mr. Rambo and the foreman were called to a disciplinary meeting in which the latter was fired because he had not obtained permission to leave the motel midweek and go home. Mr. Rambo, who was not reprimanded, later went to a medical clinic with complaints of back pain and did not return to work. He was terminated a month later after not communicating with his employer regarding his absence.

Kelly denied Mr. Rambo’s workers compensation claim, contending that he was not acting within the course and scope of his employment when the accident occurred and that he had not suffered any injury.

An administrative judge denied the claim, stating that being a traveling employee did not make all travel accidents compensable. Acknowledging that Kelly had no written company policy prohibiting Mr. Rambo from leaving the work site, the judge found that the men did not have permission to leave Greenwood for personal reasons and had deviated from the course of employment by going home. A divided Workers' Compensation Commission affirmed.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals explained that a “traveling employee” is one whose work takes him away from the employer's premises. This category of employee may be exempt from the “going and coming” rule, which deems injuries incurred while in transit to or from a job as non-compensable, the court said, ruling this was not the case. Even though Kelly specifically provided transportation, the company prohibited employees from leaving the motel without permission, and his travels were a “deviation” from his work, the court said.

Four judges dissented, arguing that Mr. Rambo “was following the instructions of his direct supervisor when he drove home from the work site and then returned the following morning.”

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