Accidental injuries are always a possibility at company events.
Summer is a popular time for businesses to sponsor employee sports teams or host company picnics or events. Accidental injuries are always a possibility with such activities. It is important for businesses to be aware that—depending on the circumstances—there is a possibility of workers’ compensation liability for an injury to an employee that occurs during such an activity.
Section 11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act provides the rule for whether an injury at a company event is compensable. Section 11 states: "[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." Thus, the rule that determines the compensability of such an injury is whether participation on the team or in the event is voluntary.
Despite the relatively clear language of Section 11, there are numerous cases in Illinois interpreting whether participation on a team or attendance at an event is voluntary. Below are seven representative cases that provide examples of Illinois courts’ analysis of this issue.
Gooden v. Industrial Commission (2006): Injury Not Compensable
An employee was injured while playing volleyball at a company picnic. Employees had the option of working a half-day and attending the picnic, or working a full day and not attending. Attendance was encouraged, but was not mandatory. Employees attending were paid their full salary. The employee’s injury was not compensable because his participation was voluntary. The court relied on the fact that the employer had not ordered or assigned him to attend the picnic. Additionally, the picnic was merely an alternative to the normal work day, with non-attending employees not facing the prospect of losing a personal day or pay.
Pickett v. Industrial Commission (1993): Injury Not Compensable
A sheriff injured his knee while playing basketball on his department’s basketball team. The sheriff admitted that he voluntarily played on the team. The facts showed that the department exerted a lot of control over the team, with another sheriff in charge of the team and the department providing the uniforms. The department also paid regular salary for any games that occurred during working hours. Despite these facts, the injury was not compensable because the sheriff’s participating was completely voluntary. The court explained that an employer’s control was not, of itself, sufficient to support compensability independent of proof of an employer's assignment or direction to participate in the activity.
Kozak v. Industrial Commission (1991): Injury Not Compensable
An employee died of a heart attack while playing in a tournament to determine a team from his company to play in a national corporate tennis tournament. A fellow employee was in charge of organizing the tournament. The employer agreed to pay the fees and expenses for the national tournament qualifiers and agreed it would not deduct any wages or salary for the time spent there. However, both parties agreed that the participation was voluntary. On this basis, the injury was not compensable.
Viacom Outdoor v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (2013): Injury Not Compensable
An employee was injured at a bowling charity event hosted by her employer. Participation in the event was not mandatory, but highly encouraged. The employer closed the office early for those who chose to participate in the event and did not deduct pay for attendees. The employer paid for the bowling shoes and lane rental. Those who did not attend were not penalized in any way. The court found that the injury was not compensable because the event was merely an alternative to the employees’ regular workday. From these facts, it found the employer had not ordered attendance.
Auto-Trol Technology Corp. v. Industrial Commission (1989): Injury Compensable
An employee was injured while riding a motorcycle provided for use by the host of a company party. The event was designed to bring together two departments that had issues between them. The employee had asked a manager if he needed to attend and was told that it “would serve his career very well if he attended.” There were a lot of business discussions at the event. This injury was found to be compensable. The court found that there was a clear business emphasis to the event and that attendance was mandatory, despite the fact that the manager had not told the employee that he was required to attend.
Law Offices of Schooley v. Industrial Commission (1987): Injury Compensable
A law clerk was injured while playing on a softball team sponsored by his employer. The clerk claimed that his duties at work included managing the team. He was allowed to use firm resources to handle business for the team and was allowed to leave work early for practice without any reduction in pay. The clerk’s employer would attend games and buy beverages for the team following the game at a tavern, where he received several referrals. The court determined this was a compensable injury. The court found the clerk’s participation was more than “mere cooperation,” given that he was directed to manage the team and did not lose pay for his time spent managing.
Woodrum v. Industrial Commission (2003): Injury Compensable
Woodrum was injured while playing basketball at a company event hosted by his employer on a work day. Employees could attend the picnic and be paid, take a vacation/personal day and be paid, or do neither and not be paid. The court determined the injury was compensable, explaining that by forcing employees to choose between attending the company picnic or giving up a benefit, the employer had essentially ordered attendance.
Despite the relatively clear rule provided in Section 11, the issue of whether an employee’s participation in an employer-sponsored activity or event could expose an employer to workers’ compensation liability can be a difficult, fact-intensive question to analyze. If your company has any questions regarding its company-sponsored events, it is recommended that legal counsel be contacted. iBi
Brad Keller is an attorney with Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, PC in its Peoria office. Brad focuses his practice on trucking litigation, general tort litigation, and business and commercial litigation.