The NJ Supreme Court has held that an injury sustained while volunteering at her employer-sponsored event is compensable because the event was not a social or recreational activity.
Even if N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 was applicable here, the injured worker would still have satisfied the two-part exception set forth in that statute.
The role at the event, which was planned to be held annually, was the same as her role as an employee, and but for her employment on the employer’s actual premises. If the worker would not have been asked to volunteer and would not have been injured. Thus, the injury was “a regular incident of employment.”
Additionally, the employer received a benefit from the event “beyond the improvement in employee health and morale.” The event was not a closed event for the employer team. Rather, it was an outreach event to celebrate and benefit employer’s clients, creating goodwill in the community.
Under New Jersey’s Worker’s Compensation Act, an employee injured during a social or recreational activity generally cannot receive compensation for those injuries unless a two-part exception is met. See N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. In this case, the Court considers whether the injuries sustained by claimant Kim Goulding at an event hosted by her employer are compensable.
Goulding was an employee of North Jersey Friendship House, Inc. (Friendship House), a non-profit organization that assists individuals with developmental disabilities. She worked Monday through Friday as a chef/cook, and her responsibilities included cooking meals for, and teaching vocational classes to, Friendship House’s clients.
On a Saturday in September 2017, Friendship House hosted its first-ever “Family Fun Day,” which it planned to hold as an annual event moving forward. The event was designed to provide a safe and fun environment with recreational activities for the clients of Friendship House and their families. Friendship House employees were asked to volunteer to work the event, but there were no consequences for those who did not. Goulding volunteered to work the event as a cook, her normal job at Friendship House.
On the day of the event, Goulding set up breakfast. While later preparing for lunch, she stepped in a pothole and fell down, injuring her ankle. Goulding continued to help the other cooks prepare lunch while keeping her foot iced and elevated. She left in the afternoon and did not participate in any of the games or activities at the event.
Goulding filed a claim for worker’s compensation and benefits. Friendship House maintained that Goulding was not entitled to relief because she was not working for Friendship House when the injury occurred.
The workers’ compensation court dismissed Goulding’s claim, determining that Family Fun Day was a social or recreational event and that the two-part test of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 was not satisfied. The Appellate Division affirmed. The Court granted certification. 241 N.J. 66 (2020).
The injury sustained by Kim Goulding while volunteering at her employer-sponsored event is compensable because, as to Goulding, the event was not a social or recreational activity. Even if N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 was applicable here, Goulding would still have satisfied the two-part exception set forth in that statute. Her role at the event, which was planned to be held annually, was the same as her role as an employee, and but for her employment at Friendship House, Goulding would not have been asked to volunteer and would not have been injured. Thus, Goulding’s injury was “a regular incident of employment.” See ibid. Additionally, Friendship House received a benefit from Family Fun Day “beyond improvement in employee health and morale.” See ibid. The event was not a closed event for the Friendship House team. Rather, it was an outreach event to celebrate and benefit Friendship House’s clients, creating goodwill in the community.
- The Worker’s Compensation Act is humane social legislation that is liberally construed to implement the legislative policy of affording coverage to as many workers as possible. Originally, the Act did not mention “recreational or social activities,” and compensability depended instead on whether accidents arose “out of and in the course of employment.” In Tocci v. Tessler & Weiss, Inc., the Court found that injuries sustained during a lunchtime softball game were compensable because the employer “approved and encouraged” the game, which quickly “became a customary” activity and “was thereafter as incidental to the employment” as lunch, coffee or cigarette breaks. 28 N.J. 582, 593 (1959). And in Complitano v. Steel & Alloy Tank Co., the Court found compensable an injury sustained in an after-hours, off-premises softball game, where the employer’s sponsorship of the team was “substantially motivated” by the “intangible benefit[s]” the company received such as “promotion of the company’s good name before the general public” and “heightened prestige and civic status” in the community. See 34 N.J. 300 (adopting 63 N.J. Super. 444, 467, 469 (Conford, J.A.D., dissenting)). (pp. 11-15)
- Under N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, added to the Act in 1979, an injury “arising out of and in the course of employment” is not compensable if it is sustained during “recreational or social activities” unless a two-part exception applies. Accordingly, when an employer defends against a claim by asserting that the employee was injured during a “recreational or social activit[y,]” a court must first consider whether the activity was, in fact, “recreational or social” within the meaning of the statute. If the activity was not recreational or social in nature, then the employer may not invoke that exception to compensation. (pp. 15-17)
- The Act does not define “social or recreational activity.” The Court has underscored the ambiguity of that label, noting that “from the perspective of an employee, the meaning of the phrase ‘recreational or social activities’ is not self-evident.” Lozano v. Frank DeLuca Constr. 178 N.J. 513, 522 (2004). In Lozano, the Court held that “when an employer compels an employee’s participation in an activity generally viewed as recreational or social in nature, the employer thereby renders that activity work-related as a matter of law.” Id. at 518. Significantly, however, the Lozano Court did not find that non-compulsory activities are always “recreational or social activities.” Determination of whether a non-compulsory activity is a recreational or social activity within the meaning of the statute thus remains a fact-intensive and case-specific inquiry. (pp. 17-20)
- Here, the Court disagrees that Goulding’s volunteering at Family Fun Day was a social or recreational activity. If an employer-sponsored event is designed with the purpose of benefitting the employer’s clients, and an employee volunteers to help facilitate the event, the event cannot be deemed a social or recreational activity as to that employee. N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 applies to “recreational or social activities” -- not “recreational or social events.” It is the nature of Goulding’s activities at the event that determine compensability, just as employee compulsion -- not the character of the event -- determined compensability in Lozano. Family Fun Day, as to Goulding, was not a social or recreational activity. And, because Friendship House has advanced no other applicable exception under the Act, Goulding’s injuries are compensable. (pp. 20-22)
- The Court adds that Goulding would be entitled to compensation under N.J.S.A. 34:15-7’s two-part test even if her volunteer work at Family Fun Day could be deemed a recreational or social activity: her injury was sustained during an activity that (1) was a “regular incident of employment” and (2) “produce[d] a benefit to the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.” (p. 22)
- As to the first prong, the Court distinguishes Sarzillo v. Turner Construction Co., where the Court rejected a claim for injuries sustained during a lunchtime game the employer did not “contribute to, participate in, or encourage.” 101 N.J. 114, 121-22 (1985). Here, Goulding would not have attended the event and been injured but for Friendship House’s request for volunteers. Moreover, the event took place on the Friendship House property, and it was organized and sponsored by Friendship House and advertised by Friendship House to its clients. Further, Family Fun Day -- designed to be a recurring “annual” event -- can be considered “customary” and was sufficiently related to the employment, see Tocci, 28 N.J. at 593, particularly for Goulding, who volunteered to cook at the event in keeping with her regular role at Friendship House. (pp. 22-25)
- As to the second prong, any benefit the event had to employee health and morale was incidental to the event, not the driving force behind it. Through Family Fun Day, with its stated purpose of celebrating clients, their families, and the community, Friendship House received “intangible benefits” including fostering goodwill in the community, like the employer in Complitano. And the experience enjoyed at Family Fun Day by the clients and their families -- the very people Friendship House has made it its mission to serve -- is a separate benefit in and of itself. (pp. 25-27)
REVERSED and REMANDED to the worker’s compensation court.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, SOLOMON, and PIERRE-LOUIS join in JUSTICE FERNANDEZ-VINA’s opinion.
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Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman 1.973.696.7900 email@example.com has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.
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