Sole Proprietor Did Not Have Exclusive Discretion To Transform Trip Involving Car Maintenance Into A Work Mission


Vinno Verasawmi was the sole proprietor of VKR, which manufactured custom kitchen cabinets for residential and commercial customers.  The company had two other employees. Verasawmi would visit construction sites and meet customers in the ordinary course of business. He drove a Porsche Cayenne, registered in his own name, both for personal and business use.  He testified that he bought the Porsche to impress potential customers.

On April 24, 2012, Verasawmi left his house at 6:45 a.m. to go to his shop in Middlesex, N.J.  Then he proceeded to a construction site in Peapack, N.J. where he installed kitchen cabinets.  He also picked up architectural drawings and started driving back to the shop.  It was then that he noticed a red warning light on the dashboard of his car, indicating a need for service. 

Verasawmi drove to the shop, dropped off the drawings, and then proceeded to drive to an auto dealership in Edison, N.J. arriving at 10:00 a.m. He left the vehicle at the dealership and rented a replacement vehicle.  Subsequently he drove from the dealership in the replacement vehicle back to his shop in Middlesex.  On the way to the shop he was involved in an accident with a tractor-trailer.  He filed a claim petition alleging serious injuries that prevented him from operating his business. He also filed a third party suit.

Verasawmi argued that as the employer, he directed himself to take the Porsche to the dealership for servicing.  He contended that this trip and the return trip to the office were compensable because his employer directed him to make the trips. 

The Judge of Compensation ruled that petitioner was not in the course of his employment at the time of his accident.  The Judge held that the maintenance on his vehicle did not constitute a benefit to his employer.  The Judge also commented that Verasawmi initially claimed he was on the way to a job site when the accident occurred, but in the law suit against the operator of the tractor-trailer he conceded he had been returning to his shop when the accident transpired.  In the end, the Judge of Compensation found that petitioner’s actions were entirely personal in nature, and he would have had to get the vehicle repaired regardless of whether he was working for VKR or not.

On appeal Verasawmi argued that the use of the vehicle redounded to his employer’s benefit.  He maintained that since he owned VKR, and since he was an employee of the company, he had the sole discretion to decide whether he was engaged in his job duties at the time of the accident. 

The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of Verasawmi’s claim.  It noted that the car was registered in Verasawmi’s own name, and he used it for both personal and business reasons. Further, he was returning to his shop, not to a construction site.  The Court said, “… Verasawmi was on a personal errand that he would have had to undertake regardless of whether he was working for VKR.  His action, which involved traveling from Middlesex to Edison and back, was not a minor deviation from any prescribed work duties.” This case is instructive because there are not many New Jersey cases involving the often heard contention that a sole proprietor has complete discretion in determining what is and what is not work related.  Clearly, if one’s boss requires an employee to perform a certain activity, like dropping off a car for repairs, that drive would be work related.  In this ruling the Court rejected the argument of the sole proprietor that he directed himself to perform what he contended later was a work mission.  The Court did not reject the concept of dual capacity, namely that the sole proprietor is both employer and employee, but it rejected the claim because the facts suggested that the vehicle was used for personal reasons and the work being done on the vehicle was fairly routine maintenance. The outcome might have been different if the petitioner had been driving to a construction site instead of returning to his office. The case can be found at Verasawmi v. Vino’s Kitchen Renovations, LLC, A-2273-17T3 (App. Div. April 23, 2019).

By John H. Geaney

Courtesy of New Jersey Workers Comp Blog

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