Since it came out in late August, the South Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling that an employee injured in a company kickball game could receive workers’ compensation benefits has generated a ton of attention on the Internet.
The decision has been covered by news outlets such as Reuters, USA Today and the Associated Press as well as discussed on numerous legal blogs.
However, don’t jump to the conclusion that you would be assured of workers’ compensation benefits if you, too, were hurt in a company “team-building” event in Virginia such as the one involved in this case.
Facts: Worker Organized Event for Employer
In this case, the employee was “Director of Creative Solutions” at a South Carolina public relations firm. He joined other managers in bi-monthly meetings where one of the regular topics was the need to hold “team-building events.”
The employee pitched the idea of company kickball game. His boss gave him the go-ahead. The employee rented a facility, designed T-shirts for the event and spent $440 of company money for the shirts, drinks and snacks. He also started “the hype machine” by promoting the game on the company’s intranet.
Only half of the company’s workers showed up. He was one of them. On the last play of the game, the employee came down awkwardly on his right leg while trying to avoid being thrown out and shattered his tibia and fibula.
He needed to be taken away in an ambulance and underwent two surgeries. According to the opinion, he will need knee replacement surgery in the future.
Ruling: Worker’s Participation Was ‘Impliedly Required’
South Carolina’s workers’ compensation system is somewhat similar to Virginia’s system. (You can see a flow chart for disputed Virginia workers’ comp claims here.)
In South Carolina, a disputed claim goes before a single commissioner (in Virginia, this official is referred to as a “worker’s compensation judge”). If the worker appeals a decision, it goes to a full panel of commissioners, and further appeals go before the state’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court (similar to Virginia).
Like Virginia, workers’ compensation benefits available in South Carolina include medical payments coverage and partial payment of lost wages.
Also, in both Virginia and South Carolina, an employee can only recover workers’ compensation benefits only if he or she is injured while acting “within the course and scope of employment.”
Here, the single commissioner rejected the employee’s claim. The commissioner found that the worker was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits because (1) the employee was not required to attend the kickball game and (2) the company gained no benefit from the game beyond general employee morale.
A full commission and the state’s Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.
However, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed it and found that the employee could recover benefits because he was “impliedly required” to attend the event.
In reaching that decision, the Court focused on the testimony of the employee and his boss and concluded that the employee’s attendance at the kickball game was “expected rather than voluntary” – unlike other company employees.
The employee testified that he felt it would have been “a reflection of poor management” if he did not show up, and he considered his attendance to be a part of his job on that day. His boss, meanwhile, said it would have been “unbelievable” for the employee to have planned the game and then skipped it.
In other words, the employee felt compelled to go the game, and his boss would have considered it to be a “dereliction of his duty” if he did not go.
Takeaway: Directive Not Necessary if Mandatory Participation is ‘Understood’
The key to the court’s decision was that the kickball game fell within the course of this particular worker’s employment because he was “impliedly required” to attend the event.
It was not necessary to show proof that his boss gave him a directive and told him, “You must go.” Instead, it was understood he would attend. After all, he had been the one in charge of planning and organizing the event in the first place.
It should be noted that the company encouraged these types of “team-building events,” emphasized them as part of developing “a certain type of work atmosphere” and actually paid for the event, as the opinion notes.
Now, what if the employee had not planned the event? What if it was “impliedly” understood that his participation was voluntary? Based on this decision, it seems likely that his participation would not have been seen as part of his job duties, and he likely would have been denied workers’ compensation benefits.
How could this affect you?
Well, keep in mind, a South Carolina court’s decision has no bearing on what’s decided in Virginia. (However, courts often look to how other states rule on unique issues – and this case certainly qualifies as a unique one.)
The takeaway: If it is “understood” that you must attend a company social, recreational or “team-building” event, even without being directly told that you must attend, you may have a strong case for workers’ compensation benefits if you happen to get injured at the event.
However, if you are not a planner or organizer, and it is clear that you are merely a voluntary participant, your claim for benefits would face a much tougher climb.