Since the early 1930s, the Tennessee Supreme Court has consistently ruled that an employee’s injury during voluntary recreational activity is not compensable as a work-related accident. However, Tennessee Code Annotated § 50-6-110(a)(6) provides that worker’s compensation benefits may be awarded under specific circumstances, such as if the employer required the participation or if the activity is part of the employee’s work-related duties and occurs during work hours. So when do you have to pay worker’s compensation benefits for an employee who breaks his leg at the company picnic? The Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board recently provided some guidance in Pope v. Nebco of Cleveland Inc.
The Pope case involved a car salesman injured in a “mud run” charity event sponsored in part by his employer, Nebco. After a trial, the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims ruled that Pope sustained a compensable injury because he was impliedly required to participate in the mud run and it was part of his work duties. It also awarded Pope’s attorney a fee based on Pope’s out-of-pocket expenses and medical bills. Nebco appealed, arguing that the mud run was not required and not part of Pope’s duties. The Appeals Board agreed.
The Appeals Board explained that a key question was whether Nebco applied pressure to Pope that amounted to an express or implied requirement to participate in the mud run. Nebco presented uncontradicted evidence from the general manager, another sales consultant, and Pope himself that no one told Pope he had to participate in the mud run. Furthermore, Pope acknowledged that he would not have faced any adverse employment consequences if he had declined to participate. The Appeals Board also found that participation in the mud run was not part of Pope’s work duties as a car salesman. Despite the fact that the event occurred during normal working hours, Pope was not paid to participate in the event and was not required to sell vehicles, network, or staff Nebco’s tent. He also did not wear any clothing to identify himself as a Nebco employee and at trial he failed to identify a work duty that Nebco expected him to perform at the mud run.
Based on the preponderance of the evidence, the Appeals Board reversed the trial court’s decision. Consequently, it declined to address the issue of Pope’s attorney’s fees because Pope had not suffered a compensable injury.
Tennessee employers who wish to avoid paying for employee injuries sustained during recreational or social activities should follow Nebco’s example. First, make it clear that participation is voluntary, not required. Second, the employer should not receive a direct benefit beyond improvement in employee health and morale. Third, if possible, have the recreational activity outside of employees’ work hours. Finally, make sure participation is not part of an employee’s work-related duties.