As spring approaches, thoughts turn to fun outdoor activities to reward hard-working employees or serve as team-building exercises. But if employees get hurt at these activities, can they receive workers’ comp benefits?
Danny Douglas worked as a computer support analyst for Ad Astra, a software company in Overland Park, KS.
On Nov. 3, 2006, an email invited employees to a company-sponsored event that afternoon at an indoor racing facility. Employees could either attend the event or remain at work.
The company covered all of the event expenses, including food. Employees were paid while attending.
At the event, Ad Astra’s owner gave a brief pep talk about one of the company’s upcoming products. The owner then divided the employees into teams and asked them to compete for prizes. The teams with the fastest go-cart lap times would win.
While racing his go-cart, Douglas had to sharply turn to avoid a collision with another go-cart that was stopped on the track. While traveling at about 25 miles per hour, Douglas crashed his go-cart into a tire wall and was thrown from the vehicle, landing on his right side.
Later that night, Douglas sought medical treatment. He suffered a rib fracture and a lung injury that required surgery.
Douglas applied for workers’ comp benefits. Ad Astra denied his claim because Douglas was injured at a recreational event that he wasn’t required to attend and his activities weren’t work-related.
The employee saw things differently. Douglas said he felt pressured to attend the event. He said he normally wouldn’t race a go-cart, but he agreed to because he wanted to be “part of the team.”
An administrative law judge ruled Douglas could receive workers’ comp benefits for his injuries. Ad Astra appealed to the Kansas Workers’ Compensation Board.
Was event purely recreational/social?
The company pointed to the state workers’ comp law which says:
“The words ‘arising out of and in the course of employment’ … shall not be construed to include injuries to employees while engaged in recreational or social events under circumstances where the employee was under no duty to attend and where the injury did not result from the performance of tasks related to the employee’s normal job duties or specifically instructed to be performed by the employer.”
The Board concluded that Kansas law didn’t define what is a recreational or social event. So it used three factors in Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, a law book cited by courts in workers’ comp cases in all U.S. states.
Larson’s lists three factors for determining whether recreational and social activities fall within the course of a worker’s employment:
- whether the employer expressly or impliedly requires participation
- whether the employer derives a benefit from the employee’s participation beyond the employee’s health and morale, and
- whether the activities occur on the employer’s premises during lunch or a recreation period as a regular incident of employment.
Using this three-part test, the Board found the go-cart racing was not a purely recreational or social event. Douglas said he believed participation in the event was required. The only alternative was to remain at work, effectively motivating employees to go to the race park. Also, Ad Astra’s owners gave a speech regarding a new product and assigned employees to racing teams for the event, implying this was a team-building activity.
And while the injury didn’t occur on Ad Astra’s property, it happened on premises the company reserved exclusively for its employees to use on the day of the go-cart races. The fact employees were paid for their time at the track was also a consideration.
For those reasons, the Board found that Douglas’ injuries did not occur during a recreational or social event. Therefore he could receive workers’ comp benefits.
Did Board use correct test?
After the Board decision, Ad Astra took its case to the Kansas Court of Appeals. The company argued the Board shouldn’t have used the Larson’s test. Instead, it should have used the plain language included in the state’s workers’ comp law.
But the appeals court didn’t see it that way. The majority found it was appropriate to use the Larson’s factors.
As you might guess, Ad Astra appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court agreed with Ad Astra that the lower courts unnecessarily used the Larson’s test in this case. The court said the definition of a recreational event in the Kansas workers’ comp law was sufficient. However, this isn’t likely to change the result.
The court noted that, in Kansas law, injuries during recreational activities are only excluded from comp coverage “where the employee was under no duty to attend and where the injury did not result from the performance of tasks related to the employee’s normal job duties or as specifically instructed to be performed by the employer.”
The Supreme Court said there was sufficient evidence to support the idea that Douglas was “under some duty” to attend the go-cart event. The court said Douglas was mandated by his employer to be in one of two places: either at work or at the race facility.
Another problem for the company: The owners divided workers into teams to race the go-carts, effectively telling Douglas to participate in the race.
The supreme court sent the case back to the Board for further consideration. But the high court’s guidance is clear: There was enough evidence this was not purely a recreational activity. It appears Douglas will be able to collect workers’ comp benefits.
Does this throw a wet blanket on recreational and social activities sponsored by companies? Not necessarily. Employee participation must truly be voluntary. And executives should steer very clear from giving work-related speeches at these events. Sticking to the mantra of not mixing work and play is a good idea for any employer looking to avoid workers’ comp claims for employee injuries at company-sponsored fun events.
What do you think of the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.
(Douglas v. Ad Astra Information Systems, Supreme Court of KS, No. 101,445, 2/8/13)