In 2019, the Georgia Court of Appeals revisited the question of whether an injury that occurs in a parking while an employee is on his/her way to or from work is compensable under the Georgia Workers' Compensation Act if the parking lot is neither owned, controlled, nor maintained by the Employer. In Smith v. Camarena, 835 S.E.2d 712 (Ga. Ct. App. 2019), an employee of a grocery store was fatally shot during a robbery that occurred while she was speaking to a co-worker in the parking lot on her way to her car after work. It was established as fact by the trial court that the employee had clocked out and was speaking with her co-worker about personal issues at the time of the accident. Like her employer's customers, the employee parked her car in the communal parking lot where she was shot, which was maintained by the employer/grocery store's landlord.

The employee's mother, an administratrix of her estate, subsequently filed a tort action against the grocery store, the owners, and the managers, who moved for summary judgment under the exclusive remedy doctrine. Holding, in part, that the employee's death occurred in the course of employment as a matter of law and, thus, the exclusive remedy provision was in effect, the trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. The employee's mother appealed.

In reversing the trial court's decision, the Court of Appeals focused on whether the employee's death, even though occurring while she was coming from work, nevertheless was in the course of her employment. As a general rule, injuries sustained by an employee while going to or from work are not compensable. Corbin v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. , 162 S.E.2d 226 (1968). It is well-settled, however, that "[t]he period of employment generally includes a reasonable time for ingress to and egress from the place of work, while on the employer's premises." Tate v. Bruno's Inc./Food Max, 408 S.E.2d 456 (1991), citing Knight-Ridder Newspaper etc. v. Desselle, 335 S.E.2d 458 (1985).

In Tate, the Court of Appeals explained that this carved exception provides that when an employee is injured in, or going to and from, a parking lot which is owned or maintained by the employer, the incident is compensable. In other words, where the parking lot is part of the employer's premises, then an employee's injuries which occur in, or going to and from such parking lot, are compensable. In Tate, however, the accident at issue occurred in a public parking lot that was "neither owned, controlled, nor maintained by the employer" and was, therefore, not compensable. In reaching its decision, the Court made note of the fact that the employer did not designate certain spaces for employees' use in the public lot.

The principles applied in Tate were later applied by the Court of Appeals in Hill v. Omni Hotel at CNN Ctr. , 601 S.E.2d 472 (2004) (food court) and Collie Concessions, Inc. v. Bruce, 272 Ga. App. 578, 612 S.E.2d 900 (2005) (crosswalk). In both cases, the employee's injury was not in the course of employment because the employee was injured in a place not owned, controlled, or maintained by the employer. In Hill, the Court clarified that the concepts established in the "parking lot cases", such as Tate, also applied to injuries occurring inside a building.

In addressing the issue again recently in Smith, the Court of Appeals focused on the control the grocery store/employer had over the parking lot, which was not specifically addressed in Tate. As noted by the Court, the parking lot in Smith served businesses other than the grocery store, and was described in the grocery store's lease as a common area that was "provided by the Landlord for the common or joint use and benefit of all tenants of the shopping center, their employees, agents, customers and other invitees[.]" The lease provided that the grocery store could use the parking lot pursuant to a revocable license, but that the parking lot was "at all times . . . subject to the exclusive control and management of the Landlord[.]" In its sworn interrogatory answers, the grocery store also agreed that it "did not control the parking lot". Based on the above facts (suggesting that the accident did not occur on the employer's premises), the Court of Appeals held that a jury question existed and reversed the trial court's grant of the defendant's motion for summary judgment.

In sum, Smith confirmed that parking lot rule still extends to parking lots owned, maintained, and controlled by the Employer; however, the rule will not apply to parking lots that are not owned, maintained, and controlled by the Employer. Thus, in a situation like in Smith, where a landlord retains the exclusive ownership, control and maintenance of a "common" parking lot shared by several businesses and their employees, an employee's injuries which occur in, or going to and from such parking lot, should not be compensable.

The situation will inevitably arise, however, where the parties see some benefit in designating the control and maintenance of the parking lot (either whole or in part) to the Employer. For example, an Employer may desire designated spaces in the parking lot where its employees, and only its employees, can park, and wishes to control and maintain those parking spots as it sees fit. Similarly, the landlord may see a benefit in relinquishing all, or a portion, of that control and/or maintenance of the parking lot.

It is in this latter situation that Employers should continue to be aware of potential liabilities created by the amount of control and maintenance they exert the parking lot used by their employees, as well the workers' compensation liability created by that control and maintenance. While the amount of control or maintenance that an Employer must exercise to trigger liability is still uncertain after Smith, it appears that a lease or license designating the right to do such to an Employer will at least create a fact issue.

Originally Published by Drew Eckl Farnham, February 2021

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