This is an interesting case that highlights the distinction between being in the course of employment and pursing purely personal interests at the time of an accident. The petitioner in the case below was a teaching assistant and a graduate student and his research overlapped to some extent. However, the Court found that his accident occurred while he was on a research trip strictly in furtherance of his graduate studies alone.
High Point Insurance Co. v. Drexel University, App. Div. (per curiam) Petitioner High Point Insurance Company, as subrogor of Kevin Smith, appealed from an order entered by the workers’ compensation court. The order dismissed with prejudice petitioner’s claim because it failed to sustain its burden of proof demonstrating employment at the time of the accident. Smith was a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at respondent Drexel University. On Sept. 2, 2011, he drove a Drexel vehicle to a site in the Pine Barrens to conduct research for his graduate dissertation. When Smith was driving the vehicle back to Drexel, he was involved in a car accident and injured. Smith never filed a claim petition but instead filed an application for personal injury protection for benefits through High Point, the automobile insurance carrier for his parents. After paying the PIP benefits, High Point filed a workers’ compensation petition, as subrogor of Smith, seeking reimbursement of the benefits paid on the theory that Smith was in the course of his employment when the accident occurred. The judge of compensation found that Smith’s accident did not arise out of or occur in the course of his employment because his teaching assistantship was incidental to his education. Petitioner argued that Drexel “entwined” Smith’s personal graduate studies and teaching assignments to such an extent that traveling for his research fell into the category of him performing his prescribed job duty and, therefore, he should be eligible for workers’ compensation. The appellate panel found there was sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the compensation judge’s findings that Smith’s injuries did not arise out of or in the course of his employment. Smith’s Ph.D. program did not require that he work as a teaching assistant. He chose to accept that position to offset the cost of the Ph.D. program. Smith used Drexel’s vehicle to reach the Pine Barrens for his personal research, not to engage in work as a teaching assistant. Moreover, Smith had no teaching responsibilities the week of the accident because classes were not in session.
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