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What Do You Think: Did Worker’s Drinking on Business Trip Take Her out of Scope of Employment?

04 Dec, 2023 Chris Parker

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Sacramento, CA (WorkersCompensation.com) – California workers on business trips who are injured while travelling typically have a compensable injury. But what if the worker is injured after work hours while dining or drinking with colleagues?

As a case involving a business support call center worker shows, the outcome is likely to hinge on the relationship of the employee’s activities at the time of injury to her work responsibilities.

The employee in the case was part of a team of traveling bankers that went to Virginia to train new call center employees. Wells Fargo promoted the traveling banker position as an opportunity to network with colleagues from other branches and pursue leadership roles. Once in Virginia, employees were expected to work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. After 3 p.m., they were free to do whatever they wanted.

Wells Fargo issued each traveling banker a "purchasing card" to pay for travel expenses and meals. The traveling bankers were prohibited from using the card to buy alcohol. But generally, employees were not broadly prohibited from consuming alcohol during business trips.

On the third day of the trip, after training ended, the employee and two of her colleagues went to dinner at a karaoke bar using one of the rental cars provided by Wells Fargo. They arrived at the bar around 8:00 p.m. There, they danced, drank alcohol, and ate chicken wings. Employees from the Virginia branch arrived at the bar at 10:00 p.m. and the group continued to dance, drink, and eat.

Around 1:30 a.m., the employee and her two colleagues drove back to their hotel.  On  the way, the driver crashed into a tree and the employee died from her injuries.

The employee’s parents sued the company for wrongful death. A trial court dismissed the case, based on the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule.

Subject to limited exceptions, workers' compensation is the exclusive remedy available to employees’ injuries arising out of and in the course of employment.

Under the "commercial traveler" exception to the exclusivity rule, an employee traveling on the employer's business is regarded as acting within the course of employment during the entire period of her travel.

Was the worker in the course and scope of her employment when the car crashed?
A. No. She stepped outside of the scope of employment when she began drinking.
B. Yes. She was on a business trip, and hobnobbing with Virginia-based employees was part of the purpose of the trip.

If you chose B you sided with the court in Abraham v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. C098233 (Cal. Ct. App. 11/28/23, unpublished), which held that the exclusivity rule barred the parents’ lawsuit.

The court rejected the parents’ claim that there was still a question as to whether the employee’s conduct on the night of her death transformed the evening into a personal endeavor.

The court acknowledged that, for the exclusivity rule to apply, the activity at the time of injury must bear some relation to the purposes of the employment. It cannot be a purely personal undertaking.

The court pointed out, however, that the employee was traveling back to her hotel after dinner with her colleagues while on a business trip. This type of conduct placed the parents’ claims within the Workers' Compensation Act.

“The fact [that the employee] and her colleagues also consumed alcohol and stayed up late to dance is of no consequence,” the court wrote.

The court also  noted that one of the purposes of the trip was to provide opportunity to network. “The team of traveling bankers was encouraged to dine together and network with each other and employees from Wells Fargo's Virginia branch,” the court wrote.

Further, while Wells Fargo did not pay for employees' alcohol, it did not prohibit them from drinking. Accordingly, the employee’s conduct fell within the scope of her business trip and was not of a purely personal nature.

The court affirmed the dismissal of the parents’ wrongful death case.


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