Many employers host various “non-work” social gatherings, whether for charity or customer/employee relations or holidays.
If an employee suffers injury or illness at one of these functions, the question of workers’ compensation becomes a complex one. There are a host of specific circumstances that could come into play, but primary question is probably going to be whether the event was incidental to employment. That is, even if you weren’t performing regular company duties, were you doing something that was considered an act of employment?
Courts weighing such cases are going to look at:
- Whether the event was mandatory or attendance was expected
- Whether workers were paid for their time
- How workers were transported to the event
- What benefit – if any – the company derived from employee’s presence/actions
But there is no bright line rule for how such cases should be decided, so courts base their rulings on state precedent and the strength of arguments presented by the Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyers.
A recent case in Nebraska dealt with this issue, and it reveals how complex these matters can be and how even different courts in the same jurisdiction grapple with related questions.
In Jacobitz v. Aurora Coop., the question before the Nebraska Supreme Court was whether an employee who was injured falling off a truck at a customer appreciation supper held by his employer was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
Law in that state holds recreational or social activities may be deemed within the course and scope of employment when they occur on premises during a time that is a regular incident of employment, when the employer expressly or impliedly requires participation, or when employer derives substantial benefit from the activity beyond the intangible improvement of employee health/morale.
According to court records, the company involved owned grain elevators in various locations throughout the state. At one of those locations in August 2010, the company held a customer appreciation dinner, organized by a local manager. The purpose was to thank local customers for their business over the past year.
A total of 17 invitations were sent and the company’s vendors sponsored the dinner and paid for food and drinks. In addition, six employees and their spouses were also invited. The purpose, managers would later say, was to boost morale, but attendance was not expected and those who did show up were not paid for their presence. Workers were also not required to help organize, serve or clean up at the event.
However, another employee – characterized as a temporary, part-time worker – delivered event invitations during work hours. He also helped set up the dinner. Just prior to the supper, he said the supervisor told him it would be “to his benefit” to be there, and asked him to go home, change his clothes and return because the company “needed my help.” He would later say he thought he would get in trouble if he did not come.
The supervisor, however, said the worker was not required to be there, but told he could come and eat if he wished.
When he did return, worker did not help to prepare food, did not help to serve it and didn’t help clean up.
When the dinner was over, though, worker helped the supervisor load a large meat smoker, supplied by one of the vendors to cook food for the dinner, onto a trailer so it could be towed. He then reportedly rode in the back of the truck with the smoker with his supervisor behind the wheel. He fell out of the truck – though no one is sure how – and sustained severe injuries.
Compensation court ruled the injury was compensable as it occurred in the course and scope of employment because company derived a substantial benefit from workers’ presence, as he was deemed a “good company representative” in meeting/greeting customers and helping with various tasks.
Defendant employer appealed the case all the way to the state supreme court, which reversed. The court found the correct legal standard was to determine whether employer received a substantial direct benefit, as opposed to just substantial benefit.
The state supreme court did not say definitively the injuries were not compensable. However, the case was remanded back to the lower court for application of the correct legal standard.
For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.
Jacobitz v. Aurora Coop., July 10, 2015, Nebraska Supreme Court
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Report: Young, Immigrant Construction Workers at Small Firms at High Injury Risk, June 20, 2015, Atlanta Worker Injury Attorney Blog