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Stevens v. Montana State Fund

Court of Workers Compensation of Montana

October 23, 2019

EMMA STEVENS Petitioner
v.
MONTANA STATE FUND Respondent/Insurer.

          Submitted: September 12, 2018

          FINDINGS OF FACT, CONCLUSIONS OF LAW, AND JUDGMENT

          DAVID M. SANDLER JUDGE.

         Summary: Petitioner fell in the parking lot of the strip mall in which her employer leased a space. Respondent initially denied liability for Petitioner's severe concussion on the grounds that she was not in the course of her employment under the going and coming rule. Respondent relied upon evidence indicating that Petitioner fell before she started working and maintained that the premises rule - which provides that an employee is in the course of her employment when she is on her employer's premises a reasonable time before her shift - did not apply because the parking lot in which Petitioner fell was not part of the employer's premises because the employer leased its space, shared the parking lot with other businesses, and did not maintain it. Petitioner argued that she was in the course of her employment under the premises rule because the parking lot was part of her employer's premises under established Montana law. Alternatively, Petitioner argued that she was within the course of her employment because she had already started working when she fell. After the parties deposed witnesses, Respondent accepted liability on the grounds that the weight of the evidence showed that Petitioner had already started working when she fell. Petitioner now asserts that Respondent's initial denial was unreasonable and that she is therefore entitled to a penalty under § 39-71-2907, MCA.

         Held: Respondent's initial denial was reasonable because the law of Montana was not clearly established at the time Respondent denied liability. While the established law of Montana provides that an employer-owned parking lot is part of the employer's premises, there is no case law addressing whether an employer's premises includes a parking lot that it leases, shares with other businesses, and does not maintain. Moreover, at the time Respondent denied liability, there were legitimate issues of material fact as to whether Petitioner fell immediately before or after she began working.

         ¶ 1 The trial in this matter was held on September 12, 2018, in Missoula. Petitioner Emma Stevens was present and represented by Thomas C. Bulman. Respondent Montana State Fund (State Fund) was represented by Melissa Quale.

         ¶ 2 Exhibits: This Court admitted Exhibits 1 through10.

         ¶ 3 Witnesses and Depositions: This Court admitted the depositions of Emma Stevens, Darrell Haugland, and Thomas Langeslag into evidence. Emma Stevens, and State Fund claims examiner Lila Martinez were sworn and testified at trial.

         ¶ 4 Issues Presented: The Pretrial Order set forth the following issue:

Issue One: Whether Petitioner is entitled to an increased award of 20% on all delayed benefits pursuant to § 39-71-2907, MCA.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         ¶ 5 The following facts are established by a preponderance of the evidence.

         ¶ 6 Darrell Haugland and his wife own Yellowstone Tractor Company, a tractor dealership in Belgrade.

         ¶ 7 In December 2017, the Hauglands opened a second dealership in Stevensville. Haugland leased the space in which Yellowstone Tractor conducted business in a strip mall. At the time, there were at least two other businesses in the strip mall. The businesses shared the parking lot. On the side of the parking lot, Yellowstone Tractor parked its inventory of tractors. Yellowstone Tractor's customers test drove the tractors in the parking lot in front of the store.

         ¶ 8 Yellowstone Tractor maintained the sidewalk in front of the store, but not the parking lot. When it snowed, the landlord's company plowed the parking lot.

         ¶ 9 Haugland hired Thomas Langeslag to be the salesman at Yellowstone Tractor's Stevensville dealership.

         ¶ 10 Haugland and Langeslag discussed that they needed another employee to answer the phones, work on the computer, and take care of customers when Langeslag was not at the dealership. Langeslag was close friends with Stevens' family and recommended that Haugland hire Stevens, as she grew up on a farm, knew how to operate tractors, and was a hard worker. Haugland hired Stevens.

         ¶ 11 Starting in late December 2017, Langeslag was forced to take a 5-week leave of absence, leaving Stevens as Yellowstone Tractor's sole employee in Stevensville.

         ¶ 12 On January 11, 2018, Stevens arrived for work at approximately 9:00 a.m. Thereafter, she fell in the parking lot, suffering a severe concussion.

         ¶ 13 On January 30, 2018, Stevens filed a First Report of Occupational Injury or Occupational Disease with State Fund. In the box labeled, "Time Employee Began Work," Stevens wrote, "9:00 am." In the box labeled, "Time of Injury," Stevens wrote, "9:30 am." In the box labeled "Description of Accident" Stevens wrote, "Fell on ice, hit head."

         ¶ 14 On February 1, 2018, State Fund assigned Bethany Sundquist to adjust Stevens' claim. That afternoon, Sundquist spoke with Haugland. Haugland told Sundquist that Langeslag had spoken to Stevens' parents, who told Langeslag that Stevens fell while walking from her truck to the store. Sundquist's claim note from that day states, in relevant part:

Date of Injury:* 1/11/2018
When and how were you notified?* I tried to get a hold of her and couldn't so I called Tom her co-worker and he called her parents and the [sic] told them what happened.
Was the employee performing their regular job duties when the accident/exposure occurred?* She was going from her truck to the store to work when she fell. She is honest and I trust what she says[.]
Do you have any concerns about this injury happening at work?* No[.]
Please describe how the injury occurred: * She was walking from her pick up into the store and she slipped on ice and hit her head on the small curb in the front there. . . .

         ¶ 15 On February 2, 2018, Sundquist took Stevens' recorded statement. Stevens explained, "I was just walking across the parking lot after checking the equipment, and was walking into the building and hit a sheet of ice and fell straight forwards - or ...


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