When evaluating Workers’ Comp claims, the New Jersey courts closely evaluate the location, circumstances, and nature of work events that lead to an injury. There is a distinct difference in the approach to mandatory work activities vs. voluntary work activities.
Scenario 1: You are on the company softball team. During the last game, you are just about to run for home base when the batter’s ball strikes you in the head, knocking you out. You develop a subdural hematoma and have to have emergency surgery. Does Workers’ Comp cover you?
When a person sustains an injury while engaging in recreational activities for work New Jersey N.J. Stat. Ann. § 34:15-7 requires that a two part test be satisfied to determine if Workers’ Comp coverage is warranted:
- Is the activity a regular incident of employment?
- Does the activity benefit the employer over and above employee health and morale?
In Dowson v. Lodi, 200 N.J. Super. 116 (Super. Ct. 1985), a volunteer firefighter was injured playing on the department’s softball team. He was denied Workers’ Comp benefits because his participation was not a mandatory condition of his employment. Playing on the company ball team is outside the realm of normal work duties even though the participation arises from the workplace. Generally, unless attendance is mandatory, an injury suffered while engaging in company-sponsored events or recreational activities does not give rise to coverage under Workers’ Comp.
There are exceptions to this rule, particularly if your attendance was mandatory or if you were compelled to attend by management or company personnel in positions of power. See an example of this in Scenario 2.
Scenario 2: You attend a company picnic where you are required to present the results of the company’s quarterly performance. All of the employees are then split into teams to race on the go cart track. You crash, fracture some ribs and puncture a lung. You must have surgery and are out of work for several weeks. Does Workers’ Comp cover you?
Employees engaging in atypical behavior at the behest of their employers are likely to be covered under Workers’ Compensation rather than be denied benefits. In the NJ Supreme Court case Lozano v. De Luca Construction Co., the court embraced the “recreational injuries” amendment in Workers’ Comp to award benefits to an injured worker. In that case, the injured employee was working with his boss at a construction location that also had a go-cart track. Despite the employee’s protest, his boss, who was fully aware that Lozano didn’t know how to drive, told him to “get in” so they could race. Lozano crashed the cart and broke his ankle.
The court, using a “balance of power” argument, held “when an employer compels an employee to participate in an activity that ordinarily would be considered recreational or social in nature, the employer…renders that activity a work-related task as a matter of law.” In this case, the recreational activity was on the worksite and arose out of a work activity.
Lozano’s injuries were covered under Workers’ Comp and yours might be too. This is a sensitive, fact-specific area of law that requires analysis by experienced attorneys. If you feel you have a Workers’ Comp claim, or were denied coverage by your company, you should seek advice to ensure you are getting benefits that cover your injury and your time off work.