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Injury of Employee Volunteering at an Employer-Sponsored Event Is Ruled Compensable

New Jersey
April 19, 2022
April 19, 2022

A relatively recent decision of the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed whether the injuries of an employee volunteering at an event hosted by the employer were compensable. According to N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, an employee injured during a social or recreational activity is generally not entitled to compensation for those injuries. There is a two-part exception for when the recreational or social activities are a regular incident of employment and benefit the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.  

In Goulding v. NJ Friendship House, Inc., (A-48-19) (083726), the employee was injured while volunteering for an event hosted by the employer on a Saturday. This event was to become an annual event for the employer's clients, and there were no consequences for employees who chose not to volunteer for this event. While volunteering at the event, an employee was cooking, which was her regular job at the employer, and suffered an injury as a result of a fall while preparing for the lunch at the event. The employer asserted she was not entitled to benefits by arguing that she was not working for the employer when she was injured. The case was initially dismissed by the Workers’ Compensation Court, which found that the event was a social or recreational event, and the two-part test was not satisfied. The Appellate Division affirmed the decision.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey disagreed and indicated that whether an activity is social or recreational should be determined based on the employee's role in the activity. Here Goulding did not participate in the event in a social or recreational role. She was there to help facilitate the event and was cooking, which was her regular job with the employer. The court found that the nature of her activities at the event determined compensability, not the character of the event itself. Thus, her injuries were deemed compensable by the court.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey indicated that first, it must be determined if the event in question, Family Fun Day, constituted a recreational or social activity. The court disagreed with the Appellate Division that it was social or recreational for Goulding because she was not compelled to volunteer. The court also addressed that even if Goulding’s volunteer work at Family Fun Day could be deemed a recreational or social activity, she would have met both prongs of the two-part test under N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 regardless making her injuries compensable.

The Two-Part Test

As to the first prong, if the activity is a regular incident of employment, the court indicated that despite the voluntariness of Goulding's participation, she would not have attended the event if her employer had not requested volunteers. Further, the event was on the employer's property and organized and sponsored by the employer. The court also noted that Family Fun Day was to be an annual event to celebrate clients. As such, the court found she had satisfied the first prong of the exception in N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.  

Regarding the second prong, whether the social or recreational activity benefited the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale, the court found that there was little evidence to suggest that Family Fun Day improved employee health and morale. Nothing in the record suggested that the employees and their families were invited to attend the event as guests and any benefit to employee health and morale was incidental, not the impetus of the event. Since the event was designed for clients, not employees, the court noted it would be difficult to conclude that it had the primary and sole purpose of improving employee health and morale. The court also indicated that the event benefited the employer in that it promoted itself and fostered goodwill in the community it serves. Thus, the court found that the second prong was satisfied.

Thus, in Goulding, the court found that the injury sustained by the employee was compensable while volunteering at the employer-sponsored event as the event was not a social or recreational activity as to the employee herself. Further, even if her volunteering were considered a social or recreational activity, she would have satisfied the two-prong exception in N.J.S.A. 34:15-7; thus, she would be entitled to compensation for same.  

This case has interesting implications as even though the employee was not compelled to volunteer at the event, the court still found the injury compensable. Determining compensability in similar cases remains very fact-specific. It is vital to obtain as many pertinent facts as possible for a strong defense.