On August 27, the South Carolina Supreme Court allowed workers’ compensation benefits for an employee hurt at an employer-sponsored kickball game. No doubt the concept inspires a chuckle and probably leads one to roll their eyes and utter one of the most beloved terms of the insurance industry, “jackpot justice” or “litigation lottery.”
But a closer examination of the facts and the law supporting the decision reveals the injury is not funny, and law solidly supports giving benefits in this situation.
Stephen Whigham worked as director of creative solutions at Jackson Dawson, an advertising and public relations company. An important part of the company’s work atmosphere involved team-building events designed to make work fun and reduce stress. Whigham came up with the idea of the fateful kickball game. His boss authorized him to use company money for the event to purchase a rental facility, game t-shirts, and drinks and snacks.
With his boss’s support, Whigham promoted the game on company email. About half the employees attended. Unfortunately, the game had a life-altering result for Whigham.
Whigham got severely injured on the last play while jumping to avoid being thrown out. He landed wrong on his right leg, shattering both leg bones. He went to the hospital by ambulance, then underwent two operations. As a result, he will need a knee replacement.
The fun afternoon Whigham planned to benefit his company mutated into a hard-fought legal battle when he applied for worker’s compensation benefits for being hurt at it. A workers’ compensation commissioner denied his claim, then he lost two appeals before the Supreme Court accepted the case and issued its ruling.
The Supreme Court’s ruling makes several important points for South Carolina injured workers:
- Courts should interpret workers’ compensation laws to provide benefits if possible. This protects all South Carolina employees. The goal of workers’ compensation is to protect folks hurt doing their job.
- Employees are eligible for workers’ comp if hurt at employer events they are even impliedly required to attend, or when the activity is made part of their job. This makes sense, as just about anything an employer requires an employee to do is part of the job. It’s also a wise judgment, as it includes activities that employers “hint” employees should attend (but everyone knows it’s mandatory).
The Supreme Court ruled Whigham eligible for benefits because the undisputed facts clearly indicated the company expected him to attend the game as part of his job. Whigham testified he considered attendance part of his job. His boss testified, “You don’t just plan something and then not show up for it.” The Court concluded, “it is undisputed that Whigham felt compelled to go and his boss would have considered it a dereliction of duty to miss it.”
The Supreme Court also noted the company made the game part of his job, citing the company’s emphasis on fun and team-building events. The Court also noted Whigham’s boss authorized him to spend company funds on the game and supported his using company email to promote it. Finally, his boss credited him for organizing the game in a performance evaluation.
While controversial, this ruling is an important one for South Carolina employees. And it makes sense, given workers’ compensation is designed to protect employees doing just about anything made part of their job. While our firm didn’t handle this case, we give Mr. Whigham’s lawyer major credit for the hard work and devotion to fight this battle to a justified conclusion. We hope things work out as best they can for Mr. Whigham.
If you’ve been hurt on the job in Spartanburg or nearby—whether it’s an employer-sponsored event or just working on the line—always feel free to call us to discuss the benefits you’re entitled to and how we might be able to help you get them. Feel free to call us at toll-free 888.230.1841 or you can email us from your website or start a live chat.