Parking Lots & Workers’ Compensation: Ownership, Control, and Maintenance Effect Compensability of a Claim

Written by: Peter Skaliy, Esq.

In Smith v. Camarena, 835 S.E.2d 712 (Ga. Ct. App. 2019), Fabiola Zavaleta-Ramirez was an employee of a grocery store located in a shopping center with other stores, which shared a communal parking lot. Like the customers, Zavaleta-Ramirez parked her car in the communal parking lot, which was maintained by the grocery store’s landlord. On February 15, 2017, Zavaleta-Ramirez finished her shift, clocked out, and started walking to her car. On the way to her car and while in the parking lot, Zavaleta-Ramirez stopped to speak with a co-worker. While Zavaleta-Ramirez was speaking with a co-worker, two masked men pulled up in a car, pointed guns at them, and demanded their purses. As the robbery was in progress, the grocery store’s assistant manager saw the two masked men and demanded they stop the robbery. One of the masked men fired at the grocery store’s manager who returned fire with his personal firearm. During the gunfire exchange, Zavaleta-Ramirez was struck and fatally wounded. Zavaleta-Ramirez’s mother, an administratrix of her estate, subsequently filed a tort action against the grocery store, the owners, and the managers. In turn, the defendants filed for summary judgment.

The primary issue in Zavaleta-Ramirez’s tort claim was whether her injury arose out of and in the course of her employment, which would in turn give rise to the exclusive remedy provision of the Act. It was established as fact that Zavaleta-Ramirez had clocked out and was speaking with a co-worker about personal issues in the grocery store’s communal parking lot at the time of the accident. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling Zavaleta-Ramirez’s mother was barred from bringing the tort claim because the Claimant was in the course of employment and, thus, the exclusive remedy provision was in effect. Zavaleta-Ramirez’s mother appealed the decision. Subsequently, the Court of Appeals ruled a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Zavaleta-Ramirez was in the course of employment and, thus, whether the exclusive remedy provision of the Act was applicable.

To come to this decision, the Court of Appeals first examined whether Zavaleta-Ramirez’s death was a compensable injury under O.C.G.A. § 34-9-11(a), which requires the injury to (1) arise out of and (2) in the course of the employment. The Court of Appeals only addressed the second prong of this test. In examining whether the death was in the course of employment, the Court of Appeals relied upon well-established precedent in Tate v. Bruno’s Inc./Food Max, 200 Ga. App. 395, 408 S.E.2d 456 (1991). In Tate,  the Court of Appeals reiterated the general rule that accidents while going to or from work are not in the course of employment. However, they also noted an exception to this rule is that an employee is entitled to a reasonable time for ingress to and egress from their place of work on the employer’s premises. In Tate, the Court of Appeals held an accident that occurred in a public parking lot that was not owned, controlled, or maintained by the employer was not compensable. In other words, the accident did not fall within the employee’s ingress to and egress from work exception. As has been mentioned before, Tate was silent as to whether the grocery store “controlled” the parking lot with a contract, such as a lease. Workers’ Compensation, 44 Mercer L. Rev. 457 (1992).

Citing the ruling in Tate, the Court of Appeals in Smith detailed the level of control the grocery store had over the parking lot. Specifically, the grocery store in Smith leased the parking lot pursuant to a revocable license with the landlord, which stated the parking lot was subject to the exclusive control and management of the landlord. In conjunction with Tate, the Court of Appels held that the facts (i.e. the level of control detailed in the revocable license) created a fact question as to whether the defendants could satisfy the “in the course of” requirement. In other words, the 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.

Ultimately, the holding in Smith v. Camarena continues the long held legal theory seen in Hill v. Omni Hotel at CNN Ctr., 268 Ga. App. 144, 601 S.E.2d 472 (2004) and Collie Concessions, Inc. v. Bruce, 272 Ga. App. 578, 612 S.E.2d 900 (2005). In both cases, the Claimant’s injury was not in the course of employment because the Claimant was injured in a place not owned, controlled, or maintained by her Employer. In the context of workers’ compensation, Employers should be aware of potential liabilities created by the amount of control exerted over their parking lot and the workers’ compensation liability created by that control.