Having It Both Ways: Coming and Going in Utah

January 16th, 2007 by

Police Officer Michelle Ross was injured in a car crash outside Salt Lake County while driving with her infant son. She was off-duty, operating a marked police vehicle. (I’ve never seen a police cruiser with an infant carseat.) She crossed the center line of State Road 36 and struck a tractor-trailor, injuring two people. Is she covered by workers comp? Is the city liable for her driving mistake?
You would expect a consistent answer: if Ross was “in the course and scope” of employment, she would collect workers comp and the city would be liable for her negligent driving. If she was truly off duty – “coming and going” – she would not be eligible for comp and the city would be off the hook for the injuries she caused.
Well, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” No small minds in Utah! Because Officer Ross was part of a “take-home car” program designed to increase the visibility of the police and to speed response time, she was, in effect, on duty at all times, even when driving with her child. So the court ruled that she is entitled to workers comp for her injuries.
If Ross was on duty, then the city is liable for her actions, right? It turns out that prior to the awarding of comp, the state Supreme Court ruled exactly the other way. They overturned a judgment against the city on behalf of the injured parties, Chad and Stacy Ahlstrom. The court ruled that the city cannot be held liable for an employee who is simply “coming and going” from work.
Ross was and was not in the course and scope of employment. The city was liable (for comp) and not liable (for Ross’s negligence). The city has it both ways, at the expense, it appears, of the Ahlstroms. Their heads must be spinning, like vehicles in this week’s ice storm on the slippery roads of Utah.