Parking Lot Workers’ Compensation Cases: Insights for a Strong Defense
Parking lot cases can be some of the most complicated workers’ compensation claims. On one hand, it seems clear that if a fall occurs in a parking lot owned, maintained, and controlled by the employer, the claim is compensable. On the other hand, the waters become murkier where the fall occurs in a lot accessible by the public but owned and maintained by the employer. Another compensability debacle occurs if the employee falls in a lot accessible by the public with a hazardous condition in the lot.
So clearly, these parking lot cases are not so clear.
What is crystal clear is that in any case involving a parking lot a detailed investigation should occur immediately. First, the employer should secure a written statement from the employee to confirm the precise time and location of the accident. Second, the interviewer should take notes regarding the cause of the fall from the employee’s perspective. Notes should be made regarding footwear and the condition of the employee’s clothing. Evidence might include a tear in the material or wet clothing. The investigator should confirm whether the employee should have parked in that particular lot. For example, is there a designated “employees only” parking lot? If so, does the employer require its employees to park in the lot? Are there other locations where employees should or could park if necessary? Next, the employer should inspect and assess the area for potential hazardous or defective conditions. As part of the inspection process, the location should be photographed with a date and time stamp.
The Parking Lot Exception
Under the “General Premises Rule,” when an employee is injured at a point outside of the employer’s premises while traveling to or from work, the employee’s injuries are usually not compensable under the Act. Illinois Bell Telephone Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, 131 Ill. 2d 478, 483 (1989). There are exceptions to this rule, and recovery has been permitted when the employee is injured in a parking lot provided by and under the control of the employer.
This exception is known as the “parking lot exception” and is applicable in those cases where the employee’s injury is caused by some hazardous condition or defect in the parking lot. Mores-Harvey v. Industrial Comm’n, 345 Ill. App. 3d 1034, 1038 (2004).
Hazardous conditions and defects include snow, ice, broken or cracked curbs, cracks in the pavement, and uneven surfaces in lots. Recent cases have further clarified what a defect is and how the location of the alleged defect impacts compensability.
Example: Souvenir v. Dovenmuehle Mortgage Company
In an unpublished decision by the Illinois Appellate Court, Souvenir v. Dovenmuehle Mortgage Company, 2020 IL App (2d) 190759WC-U, the claimant parked in an employee parking lot designated by the employer and specifically for employee use. She parked near a median and stepped into the median as she exited her car. The grass in the median was lower than the curb, which she did not anticipate, and she fell forward into the parking lot, injuring her foot and ankle. She testified that the height of the grass made the inside of the median look like it was the same height as the curb and argued that this was a defect, seeking benefits.
At arbitration, the parties agreed that there was no defect in the curb. The employer inspected the curb immediately after the accident was reported, took photographs, and found no defect. The employer testified that the claimant failed to report any defect in the curb or pavement when she reported the injury and that she never reported that the uneven grass in the median caused her fall. The employer also confirmed that walking on or through medians in the lot is not necessary to reach the building.
The arbitrator held that this accident did not arise out of the claimant’s employment, as there must be an objective and discernable defect to qualify the area as “defective” and noted that grass is inherently uneven. To conclude that there was a defect in this matter would render all grassy curbed areas inherently defective. The Commission rejected the claimant’s argument that uneven grass constitutes a defect, and the Appellate Court agreed in an unpublished decision.
Example: Paciora v. Presence Resurrection Medical Center
In another recent case currently pending review before the Commission, Paciora v. Presence Resurrection Medical Center, 17WC 021291, the claimant argued that uneven mulch inside of a landscaped median constituted a defect. The claimant stepped into the median and twisted her ankle between the curb and the mulch.
As in the Souvenir case, the claimant in Paciora admitted the curb had no defect, and she stepped into a median which was not intended for use as a walkway. The employer testified that she failed to report that the uneven mulch caused her fall when she reported the accident. The claimant’s testimony regarding the mulch causing her fall was not consistent with her medical records, which did not include a specific mechanism of injury.
Finally, photographs of the curb admitted at arbitration confirmed the curb was without defect. The arbitrator noted the finding in the Souvenir case that a clear defect must be present for a defect or hazard to be present and held that the claimant’s injuries did not arise out of her employment.
What Do These Cases Have in Common?
In both cases, the courts relied on:
- Testimony from the parties confirming there was no defect in the curbs
- Testimony from witnesses confirming there were no reports of defects when the injury was reported
- Photographic evidence
These cases share another similar factor: both claimants allege their injuries were caused by defects in medians that were not intended for use as a walkway. In both cases, the court stopped short of addressing this issue, as the issue of a defect being present was addressed first. Finding no defect, the courts held that further analysis into the accident’s location was unnecessary.
However, there is merit in considering this factor for future arguments. The Illinois Supreme Court, in McAllister v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2020 IL 124848, noted that an injury occurs in the course of employment when it occurs:
- During employment
- At a place where the claimant may reasonably perform employment duties
- While a claimant fulfills those duties or engages in incidental employment duties
In both cases, there is a strong argument to be made that stepping into a median in a parking lot is not a risk under the analysis of McAllister, as this does not further one’s expected duties.
All signs point to parking lot cases continuing to be highly disputed. Though some trends at the Commission can be discouraging for employers, these decisions confirm that all parking lot cases are not lost causes. These cases are complicated, and the smallest detail may make the difference. The key to a strong defense and a good chance of prevailing is early and careful investigation. In these unclear cases, it is necessary to take statements and pictures and be ready to defend the client.
The NBKL blog is provided for informational purposes; we are not giving legal advice or creating an attorney/client relationship by providing this information. Before relying on any legal information of a general nature, you may consider consulting legal counsel as to your particular facts and applications of the law.