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Davis v. Labor Commission

Court of Appeals of Utah

April 26, 2018

Geneinne Ellen Davis, Petitioner,
v.
Labor Commission; Air Systems Inc.; and Acuity, a Mutual Insurance Company, Respondents.

         Original Proceeding in this Court

          Benjamin T. Davis, Attorney for Petitioner

          Mark R. Sumsion and Cody G. Kesler, Attorneys for Respondents Air Systems Inc. and Acuity, a Mutual Insurance Company

          Judge Ryan M. Harris authored this Opinion, in which Judges David N. Mortensen and Diana Hagen concurred.

          HARRIS, JUDGE

         ¶1 A construction worker (Worker) employed by Air Systems, Inc. (Air Systems) crashed a company truck while commuting to work one morning, sustaining fatal injuries. His wife, Geneinne Ellen Davis (Davis), filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits. Subsequently, both an administrative law judge (ALJ) and the Utah Labor Commission (the Commission) denied Davis's claim, determining that at the time of his death Worker was not acting in the course and scope of his employment and that Davis was therefore not entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Upon review, we decline to disturb the Commission's determination.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Worker was employed by Air Systems to install air- conditioning units and ductwork in various construction projects in the Salt Lake City and Park City areas. Air Systems allowed Worker to drive a pickup truck owned by Air Systems back and forth each day from his home to the various worksites, and Air Systems allowed Worker to choose the route he took to the worksites each day. Air Systems paid the cost of fuel for the truck as well as all maintenance costs. Worker was sometimes accompanied by another Air Systems employee while commuting to work, and would sometimes use the truck to pick up materials and equipment from supply vendors or from Air Systems' office on his way to the worksites. Worker was not paid for the time he spent commuting to and from work in the truck, but was paid for time spent picking up materials and equipment.

         ¶3 On August 15, 2015, Worker left his home to commute to a jobsite in Park City, where he had been working periodically for several months. On that particular morning, Worker was not accompanied by any other employees, did not stop at Air Systems' office or any supply vendors, and was not transporting company materials or equipment.[1] Also, on that particular morning, Worker chose to travel to Park City over Guardsman Pass, a narrow high-mountain road, instead of using the more conventional (and quicker) route up Parleys Canyon on Interstate 80. While traveling over Guardsman Pass, the truck went off the side of the road on a sharp curve and rolled down a steep mountainside. Worker was ejected from the truck and fatally injured.

         ¶4 Following Worker's death, Davis filed a claim with Air Systems seeking compensation for Worker's funeral and burial expenses. Air Systems responded by asserting that Worker was not acting "in the course and scope of his employment" at the time of the accident. Davis then applied for a hearing with the ALJ, who agreed with Air Systems and denied Davis's claim, determining that Worker was not acting within the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident because, even though Worker was driving a company truck, Worker was commuting to work. Davis subsequently sought review with the Commission, which affirmed the ALJ's decision. Davis now seeks judicial review of the Commission's determination.

         ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶5 Davis raises a single issue for our review: whether the Commission erred in denying Davis's claim for workers' compensation benefits related to Worker's death. Whether the Commission correctly denied benefits is a mixed question of law and fact. Jex v. Utah Labor Comm'n, 2013 UT 40, ¶ 15, 306 P.3d 799. "The standard of review we apply when reviewing a mixed question can be either deferential or non-deferential, " depending on whether the fact-finder is "in a superior position" to decide the question than the appellate court. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In cases which turn on the "fact-intensive" determination of whether to apply the "going and coming" rule excluding employee commutes from the course and scope of a worker's employment, we apply the more deferential standard. Id. ¶ 16. This is because, given the case-by-case nature of the inquiry, such questions "do[] not lend [themselves] easily to consistent resolution through a uniform body of appellate precedent, " and because the ALJ and the Commission "have firsthand exposure to the evidence in such cases, " thus rendering their view of the matter "superior" to ours. Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         ¶6 Under Utah law, when an employee dies in an accident "arising out of and in the course of the employee's employment, " compensation shall be paid for "loss sustained on account of the . . . death, " including "the amount of funeral expenses." Utah Code Ann. § 34A-2-401(1)(a), (b)(iii) (LexisNexis 2015). Our legislature, however, has never defined "course of . . . employment, " and therefore the term has come to be defined in terms of judicially-created "rules and exceptions that offer shorthand grounds for deeming various ...


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