Foul Ball: Court Reverses Workers’ Comp Decision

softballWorkers’ compensation is a tough game, and it spares no one. But a recent decision from the Delaware Superior Court reminds us that there are some limits to when an employer can be held responsible for injuries occurring in out-of-office, work-sponsored events.  Catch the details below.

The Down and Dirty

In 2015, William Weller, a paralegal at Morris James, injured his Achilles tendon during a company softball game. The injury he sustained caused him to undergo surgery and recovery that kept him out of work for three months. While his insurance covered his medical bills, he still applied for workers’ compensation for the three months of missed work. His claim was denied. The Industrial Accident Board—the administrative tribunal tasked with reviewing disputed workers’ compensation claims—disagreed with this decision, saying Weller should receive workers’ comp. Morris James promptly appealed the decision.

Pop-Up on Appeal

In an Opinion dated March 29, 2018, Delaware Superior Court Judge Ferris Wharton issued a decision reversing the Industrial Accident Board’s August 2017 decision that Weller could receive workers’ compensation.

The Board had based its decision, in part, on the fact that employees felt pressured to play, another employee had successfully submitted worker’ comp claims for softball-related injuries, and there was testimony showing that Morris James received tangible benefits from the softball games. These factors, the Board felt, satisfied the second and third prongs of a test known as the Dalton analysis, which sets forth when a voluntary, out-of-work activity is held to be work related.  For those of you not familiar with this standard, those prongs require:

2: the employer, by expressly or impliedly requiring participation, or by making the activity part of the services of the employee, brings the activity within the orbit of employment and

3: the employer derives substantial direct benefit from the activity beyond the intangible value of improvement in employee health and morale that is common to all kinds of recreation and social life.

Judge Wharton found, on appeal, that there was insubstantial evidence and legal error in the Board’s decision.

First, there is the issue that employees felt pressured to play. In his Opinion, Judge Wharton disagreed, saying, “Pressure to participate does not demonstrate that softball was a required activity within the orbit of employment.” Employees could accept or decline invitations to the team; it was not a required activity. Thus, Mr. Weller’s situation did not meet Dalton’s second prong.

What is more, Judge Wharton found that while other employees of Morris James testified that they felt pressure to play on the team, Weller did not. “The Board failed to even mention whether Weller, the subject of the litigation, was exposed to such pressure,” the Opinion stated.

Then, there was the matter of the other Morris James employee receiving workers’ compensation two times prior for her injuries sustained while playing softball on the company team. Judge Wharton noted, however, that these claims were accepted erroneously. “Additionally, there was unrebutted testimony that Morris James’ prior workers’ compensation carrier mistakenly covered the previous softball injuries,” the Opinion stated. This error, he felt, was “irrelevant” to the case at hand.

Touching upon the third prong of Dalton, which relates to the benefit that Morris James received, Judge Wharton found that the evidence relied upon by the Board was mischaracterized. They used testimony from former Executive Director Thomas C. Herweg, who said that “enhancing morale, enhancing camaraderie, [and] enhancing good will,” ultimately increased the productivity of the firm.

But citing another portion of Mr. Herweg’s testimony, Judge Wharton found that this initial portion did not hold. In this section Mr. Herweg states:

Q: Is there any other benefit the firm derives from these games?

A: I mean, not that I’m aware of.

Q: Has the firm ever used the softball games as a means by which to solicit business?

A: No.

Q: Do any of the firm’s clients or prospective clients participate?

A: Not that I’m aware of. I mean, there could be somebody playing on one of the teams, but I – the teams are either law firms or court/judicial groups.

This portion of the testimony, Judge Wharton felt, showed that participation in softball did not go beyond the intangible values listed in the third prong of Dalton. For these reasons, Judge Wharton reversed the Board’s decision.

Bottom Line

We are all familiar with the refrain that no good deed goes unpunished. This is especially true of employer-sponsored events designed to boost morale and engender a sense of workplace camaraderie.  Invariably, someone does something they shouldn’t, and spoils the fun for everyone else.  But the Superior Court has reminded us that there are limits to an employer’s liability for after-hours, employer-sponsored events.  So, go forth and enjoy softball season with a renewed sense of optimism!