It is becoming more and more common for employers in many industries to actively encourage their employees to exercise and stay physically fit and active. Studies have indicated that physically active employees are generally less stressed, and demonstrate better memory and concentration skills. For these reasons, employers frequently implement wellness and exercise programs for their employees, with many employers actually maintaining gyms and exercise equipment on the premises. So, what happens if an employee suffers an injury while participating in an employer’s exercise program? Does it make a difference if the injury occurs on the employer’s premises as opposed to some other location? The answer may surprise you. Keep reading to to learn what one of Chicago’s best workers’ compensation lawyers, Brent Eames, has to say about these claims.
As the general rule, in order to obtain compensation under the Illinois Workers Compensation Act, including total temporary disability benefits or medical benefits, the injury sustained by the employee needs to arise out of and in the course of employment. The courts have interpreted this language to refer to the causal connection between the duties performed by the employee and the accidental injury. Thus, injuries sustained while performing acts aimed at benefiting the employer at the place of employment and during regular work hours should usually be compensable under the Act.
Section 11 of the Act provides guidance on which injuries are not supposed to fall under the provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act. In particular, Section 11 reads that accidental injuries sustained while participating in voluntary recreational activities do not arise out of and in the course of employment and are not compensable. Examples these voluntary recreational activities include participation in athletic events, parties, and picnics. This list is not exclusive though. As long as the employer can establish that the employee participated in the activity voluntarily, the compensation for any injuries sustained as a result of such participation might not be available under the Act. Courts in Illinois have found that if an employee is directed by the employer to participate in the activity, and receives compensation for it, then the activity should not be considered voluntary. Specifically, although Section 11 precludes compensation for injuries sustained while participating in athletic events, such as playing sports or conducting physical exercises, if the participation benefits the employer, and employees are compensated and encouraged to participate, their accidental injuries should be compensable.
The so-called “personal comfort doctrine” can also provide additional protection for workers injured at the workplace while not performing their regular duties. The personal comfort doctrine states that acts which are related to an employee’s personal comfort but result in an accidental injury are compensable under the Act, because they do not interrupt the employee’s course of employment. This personal comfort doctrine was developed by the courts which found that it is inevitable that during the workday employees have to attend to some personal needs, such as eating, drinking, smoking, or using the washroom. Thus, such acts are viewed as incidental to the employment.
Nevertheless, in some cases it might be difficult to determine whether an act of an employee constitutes participation in a voluntary recreation activity, or is done to attend to some personal needs of the employee as proscribed by the personal comfort doctrine. If an employee is injured while working out at the employer’s gym, or is engaging in physical exercises during work hours, there will be a lot of gray areas which could make or break your claim. You should immediately contact work comp attorney Brent Eames to discuss the facts of your case before giving any statements to any insurance adjusters or claims handlers. This question is especially relevant for employees who have to undergo physical ability tests as part of their job, and who have to remain at their place of employment for overnight shifts, such as firefighters or police officers.
Whether your situation will be a winning case will depend on the specific facts and circumstances. In particular, if the employee got injured while participating in physical exercise at the direction or command of the employer, and the participation benefited the employer, most likely the injury will be compensable and will not fall under the Section 11 “athletic event” exclusion. In one Illinois case, a firefighter injured his ankle while playing basketball with fellow firefighters during his 24-hour shift. The Court determined that the firefighter’s injury was entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits, because although the firefighter was not actively engaging in any fire prevention activities during the accident, he was on duty and could not leave the premises of the firehouse. Furthermore, the firefighter’s basketball game was encouraged by his shift commander as a team-building exercise. In contrast, in another case, a Fire Chief sustained knee injuries while participating in a 12-week fitness challenge offered by his employer. The court found that the injuries were not compensable pursuant to Section 11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The court reasoned that although the claimant’s position as a Fire Chief mandated conformity with certain physical demands, participation in the challenge constituted a voluntary recreation activity because it was not required by the employer and the activity took place during the off-duty hours on the premises accessible to the general public.
If you are injured as a result of exercising or lifting weights, do not be surprised if the employer or insurance company denies your case and disputes your entitlement to work comp benefits. However, if you can show evidence that you were required or encouraged to participate in the activities as part of your employment, or you were injured on your employer’s premises, you may have a winning case. Use this contact form to get your free evaluation or call 312-818-2855 today.
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The content of this blog is intended for informational purposes only and does constitute or establish an attorney-client relationship, nor constitute legal advice. If you wish to discuss any further aspect of the material contained herein, please contact attorney for first responders, Brent Eames, at Eames Law Group, Ltd.