The North Carolina Supreme Court has denied workers’ compensation coverage to two state workers seriously injured in an automobile accident while returning from a holiday lunch in a state-owned vehicle driven by a state employee.
In the consolidated appeal of Graven v. N.C. Dept. of Public Safety, the court held the injuries did not occur within or arise during their term of employment, as the lunch, although encouraged by supervisors, was not a mandatory work function. Further, the vehicle in which they were passengers was not authorized for transport to the lunch, and a supervisor would later testify that if a request had been made for such use, it would have been denied.
The decision is a devastating blow for the two state highway patrol technical services workers, one of whom was paralyzed from the chest down and the other of whom suffered head trauma. Our Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers recognize this case reveals the importance of proving to the court that an injury was directly related to one’s work. Here, the totality of the exact circumstances was critical to the court’s findings. This is why our workers’ compensation attorneys dedicate so much time to analysis of the case prior to trial.
According to court records, the two workers, who provided software training to troopers four days a week between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., were typically given a half-hour paid lunch each day.
In December 2010, the supervisor for the workers sent out several email messages over the span of a few days, inviting numerous staffers to come to a holiday lunch, that was anticipated to be located at a public restaurant to celebrate the hard work of the employees. Workers were not required to attend (in fact, only about half showed up), and each was required to foot the bill for their own meal. Attendance wasn’t taken. There were no awards given out or speeches made, though supervisors did make a few brief remarks, thanking workers for the service they’d provided.
After lunch, the plaintiffs were riding back with another highway patrol employee who was operating a state-owned car on a public street when the driver hit a slab of ice. He lost control of the vehicle, and crashed into a tree, resulting in the workers’ severe and permanent injuries. (The driver suffered only scrapes and bruises.)
Based on the totality of the circumstances, the state commission determined these workers’ injuries were not compensable because they did not arise out of or occur within the course as well as scope of their employment.
The plaintiff’s appealed.
In these situations, the burden is on the worker to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the accident that caused the injury arose out of and was within the scope of employment.
Two previous cases were considered where appellate courts weighed whether accidents that happened at social events were in the course of employment. Those cases were the 1964 ruling in Perry v. American Bakeries Co. and the 1980 case of Chilton v. School of Medicine.
In Perry, the court held that when an employer at his own expense/good will offers a recreation or outing for employees and invites, but does not require, them to participate, injuries resulting at this function are not considered work-related.
Then in Chilton, the court established a test to determine whether injuries at a social event were work-related. The questions asked include:
- Did the employer sponsor the event?
- To what extent was attendance really voluntary?
- Was there some degree of encouragement to attend, including a record of attendance, payment for time spent, requirement of work if the employee didn’t attend, maintaining a known custom of attending?
- Did the employer pay for the occasion to some great extent?
- Did the workers regard the occasion as an employment benefit to which they were entitled?
- Did the employer derive a benefit from the event through tangible advantages (i.e., making speeches and granting awards)?
The facts of this case, the court held, supported the notion that the benefit to employers was minimal, and that this was not a required work function, but rather an informal social event. Therefore, the findings of the commission denying benefits was upheld.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Graven v. N.C. Dept. of Public Safety Division of Law Enforcement, July 29, 2014, North Carolina Suprem Court
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