South Dakota Business Litigation - Supreme Court Decides Worker's Compensation Case

On March 4, 2015 the South Dakota Supreme Court denied a worker’s compensation claim after a one-car automobile accident in Terveen v. SD Department of Transportation.

Aaron Terveen was a transportation technician for the South Dakota Department of Transportation (DOT) working out of Belle Fourche.  As a journey transportation technician, his job required him to travel to locations outside of Belle Fourche, but he usually checked in at the office when he returned from a work related trip. Terveen also occasionally worked for Tom Janklow by repossessing vehicles. The DOT did not have a policy that prohibited employees from making stops along their travel routes and allowed its employees to engage in personal activities during their work related activities.

On November 16, 2011, Terveen was returning from a work related trip from Yankton and sent a text to his wife at 6:28 p.m. that he would meet her for dinner in Belle Fourche across the road from the DOT shop within fifteen minutes. However, before he could check into the DOT office Terveen was injured in a one-car accident between 6:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. The site of the accident was Prairie Hills Road, a dead end road approximately two-and-a-half miles from the DOT shop.

Terveen’s personal Blackberry was recovered from the accident. At the time of its recovery, it was on an internet website showing a repossession order for a vehicle located on Prairie Hills Road and showed that Terveen spoke to Janklow at 5:48 p.m. The record reflected that Terveen and Janklow did not discuss any aspect of repossession business during the 5:48 p.m. call. To repossess the vehicle, Terveen would have required an order for repossession and a truck from Janklow’s office, neither of which Terveen had at the time of the accident. No vehicles associated with the account Terveen accessed had been repossessed. Due to the accident, Terveen had injuries and applied for worker's compensation benefits with the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL determined Terveen sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of his employment. The DOT appealed the decision to the circuit court which reversed the DOL's decision and dismissed Terveen’s claim.

On appeal, the South Dakota Supreme Court analyzed the issue of whether Terveen’s accident and injuries arose out of and in the course of his DOT employment. First, the Court addressed the accident and determined that Terveen was not engaging in work related travel at the time because his DOT employment did not compel him to travel down Prairie Hills Road. Additionally, the DOT’s approved deviations did not authorize trips to further employment for another employer. The Court also determined that the accident and injuries were not in the course of Terveen’s DOT employment even though he was considered “an ‘outside employee’ due to his employment requiring him to travel away from his home a majority of the time.” The Court found that Terveen’s “activity on Prairie Hills Road was not naturally related because he was supposed to return to Belle Fourche, not meander down a dead-end side road for no apparent purpose.” Finally, because Terveen could not explain or offer proof of why he was on Prairie Hills Road at the time of the accident there was no record that the trip on Prairie Hills Roads was “either naturally or incidentally related to his employment or expressly or impliedly authorized by the DOT.”

Next, the Court addressed the issue of compensation of the injuries based on Terveen’s deviation. The Court determined that Terveen’s Prairie Hills Road deviation without a defined reason for personal comfort or explanation was a substantial deviation, which removed him from being within the course of his employment. The Court then examined when, if at all, Terveen ever resumed acting within the course of his employment. The Court ultimately adopted the majority rule for side-trips that “require[s] an employee, who has made a personal side-trip, to ‘get back on the beam’ before being deemed to have resumed the business trip.” And because Terveen’s trip on Prairie Hills Road was a severable side-trip, he failed to resume acting in the course of his employment. Therefore, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s denial of worker’s compensation coverage.