Any decision from the Appellate Division on recreational or social activities is welcome precisely because there have been so few decisions since the 1979 Amendments. The case of Goulding v. NJ Friendship House Inc. is the most recent decision in this area of law in years.
Kim Goulding worked as a cook for NJ Friendship House, a nonprofit organization providing vocational training for individuals with developmental issues. She would regularly cook and prepare meals for members during lunchtime and after-school programs. She worked Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
The Friendship House hosted its first Family Fun Day on Sept. 23, 2017, and the event was held in the rear parking lot of the employer’s premises. There were recreational activities, food, music, games, and prizes for members and their families. Volunteers were asked to attend, and some agreed to participate while others did not. Goulding volunteered right away and arrived before 9 a.m. to prepare breakfast. She stepped into a small pothole around noon, injuring her foot.
Goulding filed a claim petition which her employer denied, and then she filed a motion for medical and temporary disability benefits. Friendship House contended that her accident did not arise out of her employment.
The judge of compensation applied the test set forth in N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. She found that the purpose of the activity was improvement of morale and that it was not a regular incident of employment. The claim petition and motion were therefore dismissed. Goulding appealed and argued that she was performing her usual work as a cook at Fun Day, not participating in a recreational activity.
The Appellate Division noted that there was nothing involved in Fun Day that would take the case out of the basic formula for a nonwork recreational event. This was not a fundraiser. It produced no benefit for the company in terms of public relations. It was the first time ever for Fun Day and therefore not a regular incident of employment.
The court further noted that petitioner herself admitted she volunteered and did not feel any compulsion to participate. To her argument that she was really just doing her regular job as a cook, the court said, “If an employee chose to help out, the employee could participate in any capacity. Appellant could have worked at a game, or assisted with prizes. She chose to set up tables, arrange trays and grill hot dogs. We cannot conclude the Fun Day was as customary as a lunch or coffee break.”
One of the key factors in this case was that no one was compelled to participate. The employer handled this the right way in terms of making the whole event optional. In fact, many employees of the company declined to participate, with no adverse consequences to them. All of the evidence in this case pointed to a recreational activity whose main purpose was improvement of morale. There was no proof by petitioner of any purpose greater than improvement of morale, nor was Fun Day a regular incident of employment. Therefore the case was clearly not compensable.
John H. Geaney is an attorney, executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, a defense law firm in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.
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