Last Friday the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned a workers’ compensation court decision awarding benefits to a man injured during a company cookout. The employee fell off the back of a pickup truck unloading a grill for the event, held by his employer, Aurora Cooperative, which owns grain elevators in southeast and south-central Nebraska. The cookout was being held for customers of the company. The lower court had ruled that the injury occurred in the course of employment because “the co-op received a substantial benefit” from the employee’s attendance.” The Supremes reversed that decision, turning the entire case on a single word. They ruled that the “standard for whether an employee is entitled to benefits when injured at a social event tied to employment is ‘a substantial direct benefit,’ not merely a ‘substantial benefit.'”

Wow. What a difference a word makes.

I’m no judge, and we do not know all the details of this case, but I am not certain I would fully agree with the courts determination. Clearly “direct” is a word that can have significant meaning and influence in the interpretation of a statute or particular case. However, in this case it almost sounds as if the court singled out the absence of a statutorily defined term, and then proceeded to ignore that same words meaning as it related to the case at hand.  

It was a company sponsored event for the benefit of the company’s customers. To that degree it is probably more of a marketing event than a non-mandatory social outing. The employee was hurt moving a grill off of a pickup truck. Again, it is kind of hard to have a company sponsored cookout for your customers without having a grill. Would that not equate to the employees actions as having a “substantial direct benefit” for the employer?

I’m really not sure I understand the high courts decision in this case, since the benefit was likely “direct” despite the lower courts omission of the word.

The Supremes provided a Merriam-Webster's Dictionary definition of the word within their decision, but it doesn’t appear to me that they read it. As the source story pointed out, they “did not define how “direct” fits into the analysis of [the man’s] case, leaving that to the workers' compensation court to determine.”

Ultimately what they did was overturn the court on a technicality, and have sent the case back to the workers’ comp court for another looksie. Their instructions seem quite clear, as Justice Michael McCormack wrote within the opinion that “Using ‘direct' as a part of the analysis has importance and must be applied.”

According to the injured mans attorney, he is “completely and totally disabled”. And now he and the world wait with baited breath to find out if his presence on that day and time was a “substantial benefit”, or a substantial direct benefit” to his employer. A great deal hangs in the balance; all hinging on that single word, direct.

In the end analysis, I suspect this might prove to be a colossal delay over a mere technicality; a delay that harms both employee and outcome. The Nebraska Supreme Court could have prevented that, but it didn’t. I hope they knew what they were doing.

Because stories like this just give our industry a bad name.




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