With the holiday season upon us, employees around the country are receiving the usual invitations for holiday parties - at the boss's house, at the country club, at the big customer's villa.
The embellished stories around the water cooler stories the next day recount the tales of who was there, who was talking to whom, and who wore what. But what if an accident befalls an employee, on the way to or from, or at the party? Should the employee make a workers' compensation claim for the injury?
Workers Compensation Laws are Generally "No-Fault"
Each state has its own laws for workers compensation. A key feature is, generally speaking, if the injury was related to work or occurred at the workplace, it’ll be compensated by the employer, regardless of the employee's fault for the injury or accident.
In other words, the employee's own fault, or negligence, in failing to avoid the accident, is irrelevant even though it would be in other settings such as a hotel or restaurant you’re visiting.
Workers Compensation Cases are very Fact-Specific
One Illinois court recently ruled that an employee injured during a wallyball game (similar to volleyball but played in a racquetball court) should be compensated for the leg fracture he sustained just 15 minutes after the game started. His employer, a local park district that runs a fitness center, argued that this was an exception for "voluntary recreational programs", the court disagreed.
Apparently, the employee was playing the game because a co-worker who told him that if he didn’t play, paying customers wouldn’t have enough players for a game. The court found that the game, and the injury, were "incidental to employment" and the employee received damages under the Illinois Workers Compensation Act.
Another recent case from Illinois involved an employee who sustained a serious shoulder injury after ramming his body into a vending machine in the employee break area. The key was that the employee had been injured when helping another employee by trying to dislodge a snack product from the machine by bumping his body into it.
The employer had been made aware of the machine's inoperability but didn’t fixed it. Thus, the court said the injury happened because the employee who worked there and so it was covered by the law.
No "Bright-Line Rules" Exist
It’s not always easy to determine whether payment will be made. Each case is different and there’s not a lot clear lines or Bright-Line rules about how cases turn out.
What steps should you take to make your case clearer?
1. Which states’ laws applies. If you travel for work, work at a location in a state different from the company's headquarters, are injured in a different state at a work-sponsored conference, or telecommute, the laws of more than one state could apply.
2. Seek the advice of an attorney. Workers compensation law is highly specialized, so it’s important to find an attorney who knows the details of your state. If the employer is located in more than one state, or if the accident occurred in a different state, consult with attorneys from those other states. It’s important to act early, as most all states require the employee to file a notice of claim within several months after the accident. The time deadlines are strict, and there are few exceptions.
3. Report the injury quickly. As mentioned, there are strict time limits to when you can file a claim and if the employer doesn’t know about the injury immediately, you may be out of luck if you file too late. This will also provide a timeline of the injury and there will be less guesswork.
4. Keep expert records. Records from specialized doctors and other health care workers can make or break your case. Have x-rays, lab results and other reports available at your fingertips. Copies of your initial claim and additional contact with your employer should be kept as well.
Employees may believe that their attendance at holiday parties, client entertainment events, company picnics, and company training are mandatory, or at least expected. If you’re injured at such events critical fact analysis will be undertaken: Whether you were on your way to or from the event, you were doing duties or related to those duties and if your attendance was "incidental to employment".
No two cases are alike. Workers’ compensation courts findings on such subjects will vary by state, and case by case.
Question for Your Attorney
- I was injured at work. Will I be able to claim worker's compensation?
- I was injured at my spouse's (partner's, friend's) company holiday party. Although I can't claim worker's compensation, what can I claim?
- I was injured at a function held by a potential employer. What can I do? Can I claim worker's compensation if they hire me?