California’s Special Mission Exception in the Courts: A Review

California’s coming and going rule is a commonly cited, and often litigated, concept in the workers’ compensation arena. While seemingly straightforward, this rule has many exceptions, not least of which is the special mission exception. Courts in California have helped shape the special mission exception through decisions involving numerous different fact patterns. Understanding the nuances of these cases and reasons supporting a certain decision can help others who find themselves navigating the workers’ compensation system.

California’s Special Mission Exception

California’s Special Mission Exception

Lantz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (2014)

In this case, the Lantz worked as a correctional officer and commuted approximately 85 miles from his home to work each day. After completing his shift, he was ordered by his employer to stay and work the following shift. Once he completed the double shifts, he began his commute home and was killed in an automobile accident. In response to his widow’s application for workers’ compensation benefits, the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) found in favor of Lantz’s employer, citing the coming and going rule to bar an award of benefits. Lantz’s widow appealed and argued that her husband was on a “special mission” for his employer after being requested to stay for a second shift.

The court of appeals affirmed the decision of the WCAB, essentially stating that the request by Lantz’s employer was not sufficient to trigger the special mission exception to the coming and going rule. The WCAB and court of appeals found that the employer’s request that Lantz stay to work a double shift was not so far out of the ordinary to be considered a special mission, and therefore, his injury did not arise out of employment. The factors that were relied upon to make this decision were that the request was a common occurrence for persons in Lantz’s position and that the duties of the second shift were sufficiently similar to the duties he performed during his regularly scheduled shift, thereby making the employer’s request not extraordinary.

Compare this outcome with that of Safeway v. WCAB, a much earlier case involving the special mission exception.

Safeway v. WCAB (1980)

In this case, a data entry clerk was asked by his employer to stay past the end of his shift to help with inventory. Approximately five hours after the time he normally would have been heading home, the worker left his place of employment and commuted home. The worker was then injured as he left his car and was walking toward his home. The employer in this case argued that the coming and going rule barred the worker from receiving workers’ compensation benefits, but the WCAB disagreed. The WCAB found that the employer’s request for the worker to stay past his shift constituted a special mission, and therefore the worker was entitled to benefits. The employer appealed and the case went before the court of appeals, which upheld the decision of the WCAB.

In the Safeway case, the court of appeals cited two factors it used in making this decision. The first factor was that the employer’s request required the worker to perform inventory duties, which were out-of-the-ordinary from his normal data entry duties. Second, the WCAB stated that a request from an employer that requires an employee to leave work at a later time than usual is similar to requesting that an employee come in earlier than usual, which is traditionally covered by the special mission exception. Citing California’s “policy of liberal construction in favor of the employee,” the court of appeals upheld the WCAB’s decision to award benefits to the injured worker.

Conclusion

Essentially, these two cases show that whenever the coming and going rule and its many exceptions are at issue, the final outcome will depend greatly on the specific facts of the matter at hand. Though seemingly simple, successfully navigating a case involving the coming and going rule can require the use of complex legal principles and novel arguments.