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Employer goes for ‘team building,’ gets comp claim

An employer’s “mandatory fun day” backfired when it had to pay workers’ comp to an employee injured during a day of “team building.”

Claimant Margie Kenney worked as an in-home therapist for Highlands Community Services in Southwest Virginia. She testified in deposition that she attended a “mandatory fun day for our unit” at South Halston Lake on June 24, 2009. Kenney said her supervisor instructed each employee she had to attend.

Kenney claimed not to remember what happened after she arrived at the lake, until she awakened in an ambulance. A co-worker, who described the outing as a “team-builder type event … to build relationships between the workers,” testified that Kenney was “distressed by the ride” when she was fished out of the water after tubing on the lake.

The co-worker said Kenney was disoriented, unable to answer questions and unsteady on her feet when they got out of the boat.

Other employees disputed that attendance was mandatory, although a series of e-mails among employees referenced the “mandatory fun day.” They also said no one was required to go tubing or to ride in a boat.

The employer’s unit manager agreed the day was a work day, with a company purpose, but denied the fun day was “mandatory.” The manager rode in the same boat with Kenney and said she seemed okay when she got back in the boat, although she had a small cut on her lip. When they got to shore, she believed Kenney was in shock and confused.

Medical evidence indicated Kenney previously had suffered from seizures and confusion, but the Workers’ Compensation Commission said her treating physician was aware of her history when he diagnosed her with concussion and amnesia.

There may have been no penalty for employees who begged off the “fun day,” but the employer “scheduled this off-site activity on a typical work day, employees were paid and encouraged to attend the event and it was expected by management that employees would not simply skip the event,” the commission said in its Sept. 14 opinion upholding medical benefits for Kenney.

“All employees emphasized the team-building purpose of the activity and their correlating participation,” wrote Commissioner Roger L. Williams.

Boat riding and tubing were part of the event, he said. If Kenney had tried to do a handstand, any resulting injuries might not have been compensable.

But the evidence indicated all she did was try to hang on. She is entitled to medical benefits for as long as necessary, the commission said.
By Deborah Elkins

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