It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hurt: The Compensability of Recreational and Social Accidents in Georgia

A South Carolina case recently made national headlines when the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that an employee who was injured in a company kickball game was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Stephen Whigham, an employee at a public relations firm, was encouraged by his boss to organize the kickball game as a team-building event. Whigham rented a facility, had T-shirts made, and participated in the game. While trying to avoid being tagged out, he broke two bones in his leg. The S.C. court found Whigham’s injury was work-related because organizing the game had become part of his job duties and his attendance at the game was expected by his employer.

Would this type of accident be compensable in Georgia? There is a good chance that it would be.

The leading case in Georgia is Pizza Hut v. Hood, 1998 Ga. App. 711 (1990), which was actually a personal injury lawsuit brought after an employee drowned at a company picnic. The employer raised the “exclusive remedy” defense, arguing that the lawsuit was barred because the accident arose out of and in the course of employment and was therefore covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected that argument, allowing the tort suit to proceed.

In reaching its conclusion, the Georgia court announced the following test: “Recreational or social activities are within the course of employment, and thus subject to the Workers’ Compensation Act if, (1) they occur on work premises during a lunch or recreation period as a regular incident of employment, or (2) employee participation is required either expressly or by implication, or (3) the employer derives a substantial benefit from the event beyond the improvement in employee health and morale that is common to all kinds of recreational or social activities.”

In the Hood case, none of these prerequisites were met, so the accident was not work-related, and the exclusive remedy provision did not bar the tort action. To the contrary, the S.C. court found that Whigham was required to attend the company kickball game as part of his professional duties. As such, Whigham’s injury would probably be found compensable in Georgia as well.

Employers in Georgia should be mindful of the Hood case when organizing or sanctioning recreational or social events for employees. To minimize the likelihood that injuries at such events would be found compensable, employers should make it clear that participation is purely voluntary. It is also recommended that such events be scheduled off-site and after hours.

By: Brian Mallow, Esq.

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