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Appeals Court Rejects Comp Benefits in ‘Special Mission’ Case

ClassroomOn December 17, 2020, in an unpublished per curium decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed an award of workers' compensation survivor’s benefits that had been given to a widow whose spouse had been killed while he was traveling to a class the employer had encouraged him to attend and for which the employer had paid pursuant to its employee education assistance and tuition reimbursement program. See Lewis v LexaMar Corp, Mich App __ (2020)

Buddy Lewis, Sr. worked at LexaMar Corporation in Boyne City and was also a student at Kirtland Community College in Gaylord. On September 9, 2015, while driving to school after completing his night shift job, Mr. Lewis’ car crossed the centerline of the road and struck a tractor-trailer. Mr. Lewis was killed in the incident.

Notably, in 2013, Mr. Lewis enrolled in the Kirtland Community College Magnatronics program at the encouragement of LexaMar’s human resources director and only after LexaMar agreed to pay all of Mr. Lewis’ tuition. The employer did not require Mr. Lewis to sign a reimbursement agreement. Nor did the employer require him to commit to continue working at LexaMar.

After both the workers’ compensation magistrate and the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission awarded benefits to Mr. Lewis’ widow, the Court of Appeals reversed and determined that the decedent was not in the course of his employment.

The court considered the applicability of MCL 481.301(3), which states that injuries sustained by an employee going to or coming from work are generally not compensable absent one of these established exceptions:

  • When an employee is on a special mission for the employer;
  • When an employer derives a special benefit from the employee’s activities;
  • When an employer paid for or provided the employee transportation;
  • When an employee’s travel comprised a dual purpose combining employment-related business needs with the personal activity of the employee;
  • When the employment subjected the employee to excessive exposure to traffic risks; or
  • When the employee’s travel was part of a split-shift working schedule or an irregular non-fixed working schedule.

See Smith v Chrysler Group, LLC, __ Mich App __, __ (2020).

The Court focused on the special benefit exception—that is, whether LexaMar derived a special benefit from Mr. Lewis attending courses at the community college. The Court employed the analytical framework established in the earlier Court of Appeals case of Camburn v Northwest School District, 220 Mich App 358 (1997). In Camburn, the court promulgated a two-part test to determine whether an employer received a sufficient special benefit from an employee’s activities: (1) was the employer directly benefited by the employee’s attendance; and (2) was attendance compulsory or at least definitely urged or expected” as opposed to “merely encouraged.”

The Court determined that LexaMar did not receive a “special benefit” from Mr. Lewis’ education because LexaMar merely “encouraged” Mr. Lewis to enroll in the Magnatronics program; LexaMar neither required nor “definitely urged” Mr. Lewis to enroll in the program.

The court also held that Mr. Lewis’ travel to the community college was not a “special mission.” Despite the fact that LexaMar paid the tuition for the class, the court nevertheless determined that Mr. Lewis’ education (and related travel) could not be considered part of his job duties at LexaMar. The Court was also persuaded by the fact that LexaMar did not pay for Mr. Lewis’ mileage to travel to class or compensate him for the time he spent in class. Simply stated, the Court of Appeals held that “[no existing case law] supports the legal conclusion that the employer’s offer of the fringe benefit of free education (pursuant to a tuition reimbursement program), no matter how tempting, is the equivalent of compelling the employee to participate in the offered education as part of the employee’s job duties.”

Mr. Lewis’ widow has already filed an Application for Leave to Appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, seeking review of the Court of Appeals’ decision. We will provide you with an update as further developments occur.

Please contact us if you have any questions about whether a worker was injured in the course of his or her employment. These are often complicated questions of fact. We are here to help.

Categories: Case Law Updates, Employment, Workers' Compensation

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Alicia Birach is a member of the Employer Services Practice Group and works out of the firm's Southfield office. She has extensive experience representing insurance carriers, third party administrators and employers against workers' compensation claims. Additionally, she is experienced in counseling employers on labor and employment issues.

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Mike is a member of the Firm’s Employer Services practice group. His practice focuses on representing employers, insurance carriers, and third-party administrators in workers’ compensation matters across Michigan. He has experience advising clients on various labor and employment law issues as well.

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Currently, Brian Goodenough chairs the firm's Employer Services Practice Group where he practices municipal law, zoning and land-use disputes and workers' compensation law. Previously, he served as a member of the firm's Executive Committee and as an officer of the firm.

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Tyler Olney focuses his practice in General Litigation and Workers’ Compensation Defense. He has experience in cases involving first and third party no fault defense, insurance defense, commercial and real estate litigation.

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Mike devotes his practice to the representation of employers, insurance carriers, and third-party administrators in workers' compensation matters throughout the state. He is the author of several published law review articles on workers' compensation topics, and he is a frequent lecturer on this topic.

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