Workers' Compensation

Halloween and the Workplace: 'Things That Go Bump in the Night'

 

From goulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!

From the Cornish or West Country Litany, 1926

Throughout the calendar year, employees within the workplace must attend to their duties while facing various hazards.  For example, one's work might involve maneuvering within and around heavy and dangerous machinery or repetitive activity on the assembly line.  It might include contact with diseased patients, hazardous chemicals, or demanding office managers.  One might have to face rain, snow, sleet or hail while attending to one's appointed rounds.  Whatever the usual risks, at this week's end, many American workers will face an extra-hazardous annual event: Halloween.

You trip over the hem of your ill-fitting Halloween costume as you disembark from the office elevator.  You get sick eating the "goodies" brought in by a co-worker.  You pull out your back while participating in a team-building exercise at the company Halloween party.  What are the rules concerning compensability of injuries related to Halloween and other holiday events?

While all situations cannot be so neatly categorized, most injuries and disputes fall within two basic fact patterns: (a) those related to pranks and horseplay and (b) those associated with company or office parties.

 

Halloween Pranks/Horseplay

Consider the plight of Dora Kaplan, who served as "house mother" for a University of Minnesota sorority back in 1947 (a more innocent time, when parents thought college students needed in loco parentis supervision).   On Halloween evening, Ms. Kaplan left the sorority house intending first to stop by a drug store to purchase supplies for the sorority's first-aid kit and then to attend religious services at Temple Israel, where she had been a member for years.  Several blocks from the sorority house, before she reached either destination, she stepped up onto a curb—which had been greased by some not-so-innocent Halloween pranksters—fell and broke her hip.  Compensation was awarded in spite of the "mixed" business/personal nature of her evening excursion [Kaplan v. Alpha Epsilon Phi Sorority, 230 Minn. 547, 42 N.W.2d 342 (1950)].

In a later case [Travis v. Robbins-Sykes Hardwood Flooring, 1993 Ark. App. LEXIS 617 (Nov. 17, 1993)], an employee fell off a stool at work, fracturing a rib, when a co-employee wearing a Halloween mask frightened her.  The parties stipulated that the injuries were compensable; the only issue was their extent.

The Kaplan and Travis cases illustrate the essential issue in many work-related Halloween injury cases, indeed, in many other workers' compensation cases: did the injury arise out of and in the course of the worker's employment?  Stated differently, was the activity sufficiently remote from the worker's duties so as not to be considered a part of the employment?  In the two cases noted above, the court (or the parties themselves) had little difficulty finding a causal connection between the workplace and the injury.  When it comes to social activities associated with company parties and get-togethers, the line can be more difficult to draw.

Recreational and Social Activities

Absent a specific statute on the issue [see the sampling of such statutes below], the compensability of injuries associated with Halloween or other holiday social gatherings generally depends upon two core factors: (a) whether the event occurred on the employer's premises, during normal working hours, and (b) the degree of employer sponsorship of the activity.

Employer's Premises

In a host of other borderline course of employment situations—going and coming or eating lunch, for example—the presence of the activity on the employer's premises is of great importance.  Although not a hard and fast rule, the same is true for holiday festivities.  If the Halloween party occurs on the premises, during normal hours, when the employee is being paid, a number of courts stop the examination of further issues and provide workers' compensation benefits [see Larson's Workers' Compensation Law, Ch. 22, § 22.03]. The customary nature of the event is another related factor to be considered [see the early decision in Moore's Case, 330 Mass. 1, 110 N.E.2d 764 (1964)].

Employer Sponsorship

Employer sponsorship is an even more important factor. If attendance at the event, although not an integral part of the job, is in effect required, it is clear that the employer has brought the activity within the employment.  Thus, in an unusual New York case [Claim of Torres v. Triangle Handbag Mfg. Co., 13 A.D.2d 559, 211 N.Y.S.2d 992 (1961), an employee was injured when he was assaulted and stabbed by a coworker while leaving a Christmas party sponsored by the employer. The coworker was jealous of the employee for dancing with a female coworker. The Board found that such parties were held yearly and were a normal incident of employment and concluded that the employee's injury occurred in the course of his employment. On appeal, the appellate division held that the Board's decision was supported by substantial evidence because there was a clear connection between the employee's job, his attendance at the party—where alcohol was provided by the employer—and the assault.

Company sponsorship works both ways; it can be an important factor in barring a tort action filed by an employee against the employer following a holiday gathering.  Thus in an Indiana case [Arrow Uniform Rental, Inc. v. Suter, 545 N.E.2d 832 (Ind. Ct. App. 1989)], an employee claimed she had been sexually assaulted by three co-employees during a holiday party sponsored by the employer.  The party took place on the employer's premises, during normal work hours.  The food and alcohol were also provided by the employer.  The court found that the employee's injuries arose out of and in the course of the employment; her tort claim was accordingly barred.

Specific Statutory Provisions Regarding Social Activities

It should be noted that a number of states have enacted specific statutory provisions in an effort to define those circumstances in which injuries sustained during recreational and/or social activities, such as a Halloween party, are compensable.  The following list, though not exhaustive, is illustrative:

California: Cal. Labor Code § 3600(a)(9)
Colorado: Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 8-40-201(8)
Florida: § 440.092(1)
Illinois: 820 ILCS 305/11
Michigan: MCLS § 418.301
Nevada: Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 616A.265
New York: N.Y. CLS Work Comp. § 10

Of these specific statutes, Nevada's is perhaps the most restrictive, requiring that the employee be paid for the time associated with the social event if it is to be brought within the course and scope of the employment.

The Illinois statute requires that participation at the event be specifically required or ordered by the employer.  In one Illinois case [Glassie v. Papergraphics, 248 Ill. App. 3d 621, 188 Ill. Dec. 315, 618 N.E.2d 885 (1993)], an employee received burns at an employer-sponsored holiday party when a fondue pot ignited. The appellate court held that the employee's tort action against the employer was not barred by the exclusivity provisions of the compensation act.  While the holiday party was held during the workday at the worksite, and employees attending were paid for their time at the party as well as for work completed that day, because attendance at the party was optional, the statutory provision applied.

California's test is perhaps the easiest to maneuver within, turning mainly on whether the activity was reasonably expected or expressly or impliedly required.

Closing Thoughts

We should all exercise care as we send our children and grandchildren out to "Trick or Treat" this Halloween.  Similarly, when it comes to company parties, scary costumes, practical jokes, and other Halloween behavior that is directly or indirectly associated with the workplace, some common sense should be applied.  It's a hazardous world.  In the words of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, from Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."