Say you work for a company in South Carolina and your boss asks you to organize an employee kickball game to make the work atmosphere more enjoyable. And say you jump during the game, land awkwardly and fracture your leg.
Are you eligible for South Carolina workers’ compensation?
Yes, indeed, according to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which recently approved workers’ compensation in just such a scenario. The case involved an employee of a public relations firm who shattered his tibia and fibula during a company kickball game and underwent two surgeries.
The workers’ compensation system typically provides coverage for injuries that occur within the course and scope of a worker’s employment. But some circumstances are so unusual that hot disputes arise about whether an injury truly was related to work.
In the kickball case, the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission ruled that the employee was not entitled to benefits, concluding that he was not required to attend the kickball event. On appeal, however, the South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, siding with the injured worker.
“Although the event may have been voluntary for company employees generally, the undisputed facts unequivocally indicate [the injured employee] was expected to attend as part of his professional duties,” the court wrote.
According to the ruling, attending an event is not voluntary “If the employee is made to understand that he is to take part in the affair.”
The court also stated: “A specific act need not be designated in an employee’s job description to be compensable.”
Unusual Work Injuries
Workers’ compensation provides coverage for medical fees, lost wages, rehabilitation and other costs for injuries occurring on the job. The system also provides death benefits for the family of an employee who dies of work-related injuries. But as the kickball case shows, work-based injuries don’t necessarily take place at the main jobsite or workplace, and employers can dispute a workers’ comp claim on the grounds that an injury or death was not sustained in the course and scope of employment.
In recent years, courts across the country have addressed many out-of-the-ordinary workers’ comp incidents. In some cases the courts favored the employee, while in others they favored the employer — and the differences are elucidating.
Here are five examples:
1. Accident: A correctional sergeant at a California county jail injured his knee while performing jumping-jacks at home as part of an exercise regimen. The sergeant argued that the injury was work-related “because he was exercising in order to maintain himself in a physical condition required by the Department.”
Ruling: Correctional officers were required to undergo periodic training exercises, many of which involved physical activity. So the sergeant’s off-duty injury arose in the course of his employment.
2. Accident: A Pennsylvania professor was meeting with a student at an off-campus restaurant to discuss the student’s upcoming dissertation defense. While visiting the salad bar, the professor fell and later died from a post-surgical infection associated with his treatment for a broken arm and shoulder. The professor’s widow was awarded death benefits, but the employer appealed the case to the state workers’ compensation board. The employer argued that the fall did not occur during the course of employment, as the professor was on lunch break at a public restaurant.
Ruling: The employee was injured off the employer’s premises but was “actually engaged in the furtherance of the employer’s business or affairs.” Thus, the off-site meeting was for teaching (and work-related) purposes.
3. Accident: An office manager attending her employer’s annual sales meeting in North Carolina fell approximately three stories while trying to “ride” the railing of an escalator following a company-sponsored dinner where alcohol was provided by the employer. Testing showed that the employee’s blood-alcohol level contributed to the accident. The employer argued that the injury occurred due to a deviation from employment activities.
Ruling: An appellate court held that “a traveling employee will be compensated under the Workers’ Compensation Act for injuries received while returning to his [or her] hotel.”
4. Accident: A painter in Utah went on a drinking binge at his work site after lunch and then took a two-hour nap in a closet. When he awoke and resumed painting duties on the second floor of the building, he fell into an empty elevator shaft. He argued that he was entitled to workers’ comp because the drinking and napping did not constitute a departure from the course of his employment.
Ruling: In drinking for two hours and napping, the painter “completely removed himself from his job duties” and was not furthering the business of his employer, the court said. The worker wasn’t engaged in any activity incidental to his work between the time he awoke and the time that he fell down the shaft, according to the ruling.
5. Accident: An exotic dancer who worked at clubs throughout the Carolinas was hit by a stray bullet and seriously injured during a shooting at a club in Columbia, S.C., where she was performing.
Ruling: Only employees are entitled to workers’ comp benefits, not independent contractors, and the court ruled that there was no employment relationship between the club and the dancer.
The details of these cases make them stand out. But even under ordinary circumstances, it isn’t unusual for employers to argue that an employee’s injury wasn’t related to work. If you suffered an on-the-job injury that your employer is disputing, a work-injury attorney may be able to help.
• Insurance Journal: South Carolina Employee Scores Workers’ Compensation Win for Kickball Injury
• courts.ca.gov: Daniel Young v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and County of Butte
• Justicia.com: The Pennsylvania State University and the PMA Insurance Group, Petitioners, v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Rabin, deceased)
• www.ic.nc.gov: Evans v. Hendrick Automotive Group
• wistv.com: Stripper shot while dancing in club denied Workers’ Compensation
• Justia.com: Wood v. Labor Commission
• Lexis Nexis: The Top 10 Bizarre Workers’ Comp Cases for 2012