Was The Employee’s Participation “Voluntary” Enough To Preclude A Workers’ Compensation Claim?
In the spirit of building teamwork and camaraderie among its personnel, an employer sponsors a company volleyball game followed by a cook-out to kick-off Labor Day weekend.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, in Illinois the employer could potentially be liable for a Workers Compensation claim filed by any employees who suffer an injury at the event.
Section 11 of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act governs such instances and provides that “[a]ccidental injuries incurred while participating in voluntary recreational programs including but not limited to athletic events, parties, and picnics do not arise out of and in the course of the employment even though the employer pays some or all of the cost thereof.” (820 ILCS 305) (http://www.iwcc.il.gov/act.pdf). However, “[t]his exclusion shall not apply in the event that the injured employee was ordered or assigned by his employer to participate in the program.” Id.
For Illinois courts, particularly those in the Workers’ Compensation Commission Division, whether benefits are available to an employee injured at a work-sponsored outing hinges on whether the activity was truly “voluntary” enough so as to preclude coverage.
Such a determination is based on analyzing in a case-by-case manner whether the employee was “ordered or assigned” by the employer to participate in the company’s event. Although there is no black-line test for making this judgment, courts often consider:
a.) whether the employee would have suffered any repercussions by not participating in the activity
b.) whether the employee faced losing a personal day or a reduction in pay by not taking part, and
c.) whether the event took place during normal business hours.
Similar Tests Apply to Claims in Indiana and Wisconsin
The tests in Indiana and Wisconsin for determining whether Workers’ Compensation benefits are available for such injuries are comparable to those in place in Illinois. Specifically, injuries occurring at company-sponsored events may not be compensable in Indiana if the activity is undertaken voluntarily by the employee. If, on the other hand, the activity is mandatory or encouraged by an employer, an injury may be compensable through a Workers’ Compensation claim where the employer sponsors the event and where the event produces some benefit to the employer such as by boosting employee morale – thereby increasing efficiency and productivity. Ski World, Inc. v. Fife, 489 N.E.2d 72 (Ind. Ct. App. 1986).
An analogous standard exists in Wisconsin where Workers’ Compensation benefits are available to employees injured at company-sponsored events when the employer a.) encourages the activity and is well aware of it, b.) derives a benefit from it, and c.) either explicitly or implicitly condones participation. E.C. Styberg Engineering Company, Inc. v. L.I.R.C., 2005 WI App 20, 278 Wis.2d 540, 692 N.W.2d 322 (2005).
Despite the lack of a clear threshold for what triggers liability for Workers’ Compensation claims in these instances, at a minimum employers must at least be mindful of their potential legal responsibility to compensate an employee that is injured at a company-sponsored event.
Ryan Taylor is a partner at Tressler LLP in their commercial litigation practice and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-627-4032.