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Workers’ compensation: Hit by a baseball at the annual work outing?

When are employee injuries sustained at employer-sponsored social events covered under workers’ compensation in Maryland?

The pandemic turned our work lives upside down. Many workplaces shut down and some went remote, others providing critical services entered a phase of managing COVID-19 and the occupational stress that came with it. Now employers are figuring out how work will look for their employees and it may be remote, hybrid or in-person. After three years of workplace upheaval along with the realization that some remote work is here to stay, building employee comradery and a sense of teamwork is more important than ever.

Employers have always known that keeping their workforces happy and engaged is good for business and productivity. One way to encourage comradery is to organize social outings and gatherings to help develop employee relationships, team cohesion and employer loyalty.

Bring on the company softball tournament, group attendance at a professional sports event, a 5K-run fundraiser, the office holiday party or the yearly retreat. Sometimes at these kinds of events, workers sustain injury or illness. It may not be intuitive because people are not performing their usual work duties and may not be on work premises, but in many cases, Maryland workers’ compensation covers these mishaps. Still, the question of benefit eligibility is often factually and legally complex.

How strong is the connection between the activity and the employment?

Each such claim for workers’ compensation will require careful analysis of the factual circumstances. Maryland courts recognize the benefits of such outings to employees and employers alike and that injuries sustained there can arise out of and in the course of employment – the required standard for coverage. “Arising out of” employment asks whether the cause of the injury was work related and did the activity benefit the employer. “In the course of” employment refers to the injury’s specifics such as when, where and how it happened.

An important Maryland case about work-event injury and workers’ compensation

The Maryland Court of Appeals – our highest state court – first decided this issue in 1967 in Sica v. Retail Credit Co. There, insurance claims investigator Vincent Sica attended his employer’s annual company picnic at a beach facility on Chesapeake Bay. While the company had use of a casino until 6 p.m., the employer-furnished admission tickets allowed employees to stay and enjoy the park premises until 9pm. During that time, Sica and his supervisor went swimming and tragically, Sica dived into shallow water and broke his neck, causing permanent, total disability.

The Court of Appeals said that the question at issue is “whether social activities are sufficiently work-related so as to be an incident of employment … [and] compensable.”

The opinion quoted a Massachusetts case that looked at several criteria to determine in these claims “whether the employment and the recreation are related with sufficient closeness to warrant an award.” For example, was the event on employer premises? Were employees required to participate? Did the employer cover the costs and how much control did it have? What benefit did the event have for the employer? These factors are not exclusive – a case may have a circumstance that is unique but relevant.

It found the following factors important in establishing Sica’s eligibility for workers’ compensation:

  • Employer expressly described the annual picnic as a benefit of employment to new employees.
  • Employer paid all picnic expenses and took a corresponding tax deduction as a business expense.
  • Employer encouraged attendance although it did not mandate it.
  • Employer encouraged an employee picnic planning committee.
  • Employer promoted the picnic on work premises.
  • Picnic brought together employees who usually worked alone in the field or in separate offices, promoting “enthusiasm” needed in the business.

Therefore, the employer “derived substantial direct benefit” from the picnic, so the injury was “sustained within the sphere of his employment and arose out of it,” establishing Sica’s eligibility for workers’ compensation coverage for his overwhelming injuries. The court held that the “outing was an incident of the employment,” which continued until the 9 p.m. beach closing because the employer provided admission tickets that allowed employees to stay until that time.

Bottom line

Any Marylander injured at a work-related event of any kind should not assume that workers’ compensation is unavailable to them. These cases are so dependent on the individual circumstances of each event that a workers’ compensation claim is wise. An experienced lawyer can provide guidance and representation.

  • AABA