Appeals Board Instructs on Parking Lot Cases

By Jane Salem, Staff Attorney, Nashville

Last week, the Appeals Board released an opinion affirming a trial court’s denial of summary judgment.

The ruling focused on whether the movant met its burden of production. But also, the Board’s opinion revisited a significant Supreme Court ruling about injuries in parking lots, concluding that the case remains good law. Further, whether the employer owns or maintains the lot isn’t determinative.

In Rowe v. Mitsubishi Motors North America, Inc., Tina Rowe left the work building to retrieve a headset from her car for use in a work-related call. Her car was parked in nearby lot, and it was raining. She tripped and fell, injuring her shoulder and arm.

Mitsubishi denied the claim, contending the accident didn’t arise primarily out of or within the course and scope of her employment, and that her fall was idiopathic.

Mitsubishi filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court denied, finding genuine issues of material fact.

The Appeals Board affirmed.

The Board discussed “material facts.” A fact is material “if it must be decided in order to resolve the substantive claim or defense at which the motion is directed.” Further, a “genuine issue” exists if a reasonable factfinder could legitimately resolve that fact in favor of one side or the other.

The Board wrote that, rather than relying on material facts, Mitsubishi’s pleading “suggested, as a legal conclusion, that Employee cannot prove the cause of her fall,” which Rowe disputed.

“To resolve the issue of causation, the trial court would be required to compare the proof presented regarding the cause of Employee’s fall, weigh factual testimony, and determine witness credibility, none of which is appropriate at the summary judgment stage,” the Appeals Board reminded.

The Board then tackled Mitsubishi’s two arguments regarding the applicability of Lollar v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 767 S.W.2d 143 (Tenn. 1989).

First, Mitsubishi argued it no longer applies to post-Reform Act cases.

In Lollar, the employer instructed its employees to park in a nearby parking lot that was open to the general public. As Lollar was walking across the icy parking lot, she slipped and fell.

The Supreme Court in Lollar mentioned that Tennessee’s workers’ compensation statutes are to be “liberally construed.” The 2013 Reform Act did away with the liberal construction.

But, per the Appeals Board, the Lollar Court mentioned the liberal construction when discussing the standard of review ̶ not the ruling regarding parking lot cases.

The Lollar Court held:

“If the employer has provided a parking area for its employees, that parking area is part of the employer’s premises regardless of whether the lot is also available to customers or the general public. The course of employment includes not only the time for which the employee is actually paid but also a reasonable time during which the employee is necessarily on the employer’s premises while passing to or from the place where the work is actually done.”

The Appeals Board concluded that nothing in Lollar indicated the high court relied on the remedial interpretation provision of the Workers’ Compensation Law to reach its rule on parking lot cases. Further, a Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel cited the Lollar rule with approval as recently as 2017 in a post-reform case, Duck v. Cox Oil Co.

Second, Mitsubishi argued that there could be no causal connection to the employment as a matter of law because it didn’t own or maintain the parking lot in question.

The Board said this was “conflat[ing] the tenets underlying Tennessee’s workers’ compensation law with those pertaining to premises liability law.”

The Board ruled on a similar issue in Navyac v. Universal Health Services. In that case, a parking lot wasn’t involved. Rather, a traveling employee was exiting a restroom in a restaurant, slipped on a wet floor and fell. The Board in Navyac held that, although the injury didn’t occur on the employer’s premises, the employee was likely to prove it occurred in the course and scope of her employment and that it arose primarily out of her employment because the wet floor was a hazard to which the employment had exposed the employee while she was engaged in a work-related task.

The Board concluded, “[I]n accordance with the Supreme Court’s test as originally set forth in Lollar, the trial court must further determine whether Employee remained in the course and scope of her employment when she left the building to walk to her car.”

Full-text is available here.

Photo by Judge Deana Seymour, Memphis.

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