COVID-19 Resource Center

January 05, 2022

New Jersey Workers' Compensation Case Law Update: Recreational Activities Doctrine

It is well-established that an injury sustained during a social or recreational activity is not compensable unless such activities (1) are a regular incident of employment and (2) produce a benefit to the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.  In 2021, the Supreme Court substantially expanded the criteria for when an injury sustained during a social or recreational activity may be compensable in Goulding v. NJ Friendship House.  The Appellate Division recently dismissed a Claim Petition based upon the ruling of Goulding.

Friendship House was a non-profit organization that assisted individuals with developmental disabilities.  Goulding worked for Friendship House as a cook and taught cooking classes to Friendship House’s clients.  On September 23, 2017, Friendship House hosted an event for its clients.  Goulding volunteered to work the event as a cook.  However, it was clear that attendance was not mandated for employees.  The purpose of the event was to “celebrate clients or members, their families and the community.”  During the event, Goulding injured her ankle and subsequently filed a Claim Petition.

Before even analyzing the aforementioned two-prong test, the Supreme Court held Goulding’s injury to be compensable.  According to the Court, to determine whether an event is social or recreational, the event should not be considered from the employer’s perspective, but rather from the employee’s perspective.  As the Court stated, “Whether an activity is social or recreational should turn on the employee's role in the activity — whether she is participating as a guest or providing services for her employer at the event.”  Goulding did not engage in a social or recreational activity, such as softball, golfing, or attending a picnic.  Rather, Goulding attended the event as a cook, just as she did in her regular employment.  Therefore, as to Goulding, this was not a social or recreational activity.

The Court also stated that although their analysis could end with the above, Goulding’s injury would also be compensable under the two-prong test mentioned earlier.  Perhaps significantly in its own right, the Supreme Court made a point to disagree with the Appellate Division’s assessment of the first prong, and stated that the event at issue was “a regular incident of employment” because “but for [Goulding’s] employment at [Friendship House], she would not have been asked to volunteer and would not have been injured.”  The Court then expounded on the various benefits that Friendship House derived from the event that were greater than employee health and morale.  Whether employees and their families attended was not in the record, the Court highlighted that the event was for its clients, members, their families and community and was promotional in nature.  For these reasons, Goulding’s injury was held to be compensable.

Relying on the Supreme Court’s holding in Goulding, the Appellate Division recently found that an injury sustained by a school nurse during an exercise class before the start of school was not compensable in Ryan-Wirth v. Hoboken Board of Education.

On September 11, 2019, Ryan-Wirth arrived on the school’s premises to work as a student monitor that morning.  However, her services were not needed that day.  The principal suggested that she participate in the school’s “Cardio Club.”  Ryan-Wirth contended that she felt compelled to participate since the principal was her supervisor, but she also testified that she was trying to lose weight for a cash reward after a pregnancy.  The principal testified that Ryan-Wirth was told that she would not be paid for her time, and was already in exercise attire when they spoke.  While engaging in fitness activities, Ryan-Wirth sustained a closed wedge compression fracture of her fifth lumbar vertebrae requiring surgery and was placed out of work for over three (3) months.

At trial, the court reviewed compensability of injuries sustained during recreational or social activities by utilizing the two prong test outlined above.  The Court found the second prong of the aforementioned test to be satisfied, as the Cardio Club was designed to infuse mathematical concepts into the cardiovascular exercises the students performed.  However, the Court did not find that Ryan-Wirth met her burden of proof regarding the first prong, noting that Petitioner’s participation in the Cardio Club was not a "regular incident of employment" as a school nurse, since the Cardio Club was not part of Petitioner’s job duties, did not involve performing services as a nurse, and very importantly, was not compulsory.  Further, Petitioner did not monitor, supervise or instruct the participating students in any manner during the Cardio Club.  As the Court put it, [Petitioner’s injury] "failed to have the requisite 'work connection' necessary to bring this incident within [the] purview of our Workers' Compensation Act."  Therefore, the Court ultimately held that Ryan-Wirth’s injury did not arise “out of or in the course of her employment” and as a result she was not entitled to any medical and temporary disability benefits.

On the defense side, the significant question when addressing compensability of an injury from a social or recreation activity is what benefit does each party receive from the event?  The injury in Gould was found compensable because she was working her regular job as a cook while her employer held a volunteer social event for its clients and community, which derived a greater benefit than employee health and morale.  In Ryan-Wirth, the employee was not working in her capacity as a school nurse or aide, and participated in the activity more for her own personal interest than for the school’s.

If you have any questions about the cases above, please feel free to contact Julius Cigna at jcigna@c-wlaw.com or Steven Fairbank at sfairbank@c-wlaw.com or by phone at (856) 761-3800.