Quite often here in the Cluttered Desk we relay stories of abject stupidity, either for an action that caused a needless injury, a legislative effort that makes no sense, or a court decision that boggles the mind. Today, however, our story includes none of that. It simply discusses an injury and subsequent court decision that shows the complexities of the workers’ compensation system regarding the most basic level of compensability.

Was an injury compensable or not?

In a 2-1 decision this week, the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal overturned a decision that had denied benefits to an employee who was injured while bowling at a company event held during working hours. The question was ‘’whether the outing was a “recreational or social activity” or whether it was part of [employee’s] job.”

The woman, who worked in the company’s Accounts Payable department, dislocated her ankle during the outing. A Florida Judge of Compensation Claims originally ruled that the bowling event was a “recreational activity.” He appears to have based his decision in large part on her supervisor’s testimony, in which he said she was not required to take part in the bowling outing. The judge wrote in his finding for the employer, “As claimant was not expressly required to attend the off-premises bowling event in this case, compensability of her injury must be denied, regardless of whether she was paid for her attendance.”

But the appeals court wrote in the majority opinion, “Whoa Nellie!” (OK, they really didn’t write that, but they should. The legal world would be so much more interesting if they just took my advice on that). They pointed out that the “purpose of the event was to improve morale and, as testified to by claimant’s supervisor, to discuss ‘some of our goals for the next year.’” 

I don’t know about you, but this case has me seriously rethinking my company’s end of year Bear Wrestling Jamboree. 

As noted, the appeals court decision was not unanimous. One justice wrote in her dissenting opinion, “[Employee] failed to present competent, substantial evidence to show that the bowling event was required as an incident of her employment or that it provided a substantial direct benefit to [company] beyond improving employee health and morale. The JCC’s (judge of compensation claims’) order denying compensability for [employee’s] bowling injury should be affirmed.”

Her overall position notwithstanding, I find some incongruities in that opinion. It seems to me that improving employee health and morale is a substantial benefit in its own right. Besides, the issue probably wasn’t whether the event (or the employee’s participation) “provided a substantial direct benefit” to the employer, but rather whether the employee was or was not required to be there. For all that matters it could have been a drunken tiddlywink contest, but if the message was you better damn well be there, then you better damn well be there.

We’re not saying that was the message here, but it seems that the perceived requirement to attend was more important than any intended benefit. But then again, what do I know? I am not a lawyer, and I am certainly not a judge.

I am fairly judgmental, however.

So, just to make sure we have all this straight; it was a “team building” event where employees were paid to attend, company business including goals would be discussed, but the team wasn’t required to be there. No matter where you land on that issue, we can probably all agree that the end result was probably not what was originally intended. After all, nothing builds a team or family feeling like having an injury and then denying benefits (to be fair, for a first dollar insured the denial would have likely been the insurers call).

The case does serve to highlight the challenges our judges and hearing officers face on a daily basis. Parsing the evidence and making the right call can be a challenging thing. Personally, in this case I find myself leaning to the appeals court decision. I base that primarily on the revelation that company goals and business would have been discussed. That would be an important thing to be part of. Besides, everyone knows they have a right to my opinion.

What would you have decided?

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