A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Avoiding Compensable Holiday Party Accidents

By on December 12, 2019 in Compensability with 0 Comments

We are in holiday season.  Many private and public entities have holiday parties this time of year, and inevitably there will be accidents either going to or from the party or perhaps slipping and falling on the dance floor.  What do employers need to know and what can they do to avoid such claims when they schedule weekend or after-work parties?

First, the employee must prove that the event is a regular incident of employment and that the purpose of the event was to promote an end greater than improvement of morale.  If it is all about morale, it is not compensable.  A fundraiser might be an example of an event whose purpose promotes something greater than morale. 

But even if the employee cannot meet this test, the employee will prevail if he or she can show that attendance was compulsory.  That which is required is considered to be work-related.  Now realistically, most employers do not send out invitations to holiday parties saying that attendance is compulsory.  But that is not the only way for an employee to prove attendance was compelled.  If the person in charge of the party says, “Hi Sam, I sure hope you are going to make the holiday party on Saturday,” Sam may testify at trial that he had a reasonable basis to believe that his attendance was compelled.  If the person in charge of the party keeps asking people whether they are attending, and then presses for explanations on why they are not planning to attend, or suggests that “the boss will be disappointed,” a Judge of Compensation may very well find that the employee had a reasonable basis to believe that attendance was compelled. So the test of compulsion is not whether the words “mandatory attendance” are on the invitation but whether the employee had a reasonable basis to believe he or she must attend.

When employers lose cases involving injuries going to or from holiday parties or slip and falls at the party, it is mostly because the injured employee can convince the Judge of Compensation that he or she felt compelled to attend.  If that is the case, the ride to the party and the ride home is covered by workers’ compensation.  Car accidents are the main cause of injuries, often very serious ones, and the risk of injury may be compounded by use of alcohol or wintry road conditions.   Unfortunately, the New Jersey law does not protect employers from injuries caused largely by intoxication because the current law requires the employer to prove that no cause – other than the use of alcohol – contributed to the accident.  So if you have someone who is intoxicated above the legal limit and the roads are slippery when the accident happens, the employer will lose because there is another reason for the accident besides intoxication, namely the slippery road conditions.  Needless to say, we are in December.

The best way for employers to insure that they do not have to pay for holiday party accidents is to make it crystal clear that attendance is optional.  Put that language all over the invitation.  Make it clear that there will be no names taken of attendees, and non-attendees, and do not pester people who have no plans to attend.  High level employees should not be walking around asking employees why they are not coming to the party.   This may make it harder to guarantee a number of attendees for the restaurant, but that is far better than having to pay a death claim for someone who is tragically injured driving home from a holiday party.

Bear in mind that holiday parties during work hours are a completely different subject.  These parties where people are actually at work and getting paid during normal work hours are almost always covered.   So if there is a party at lunch at Lincoln Company in the cafeteria, and someone slips and falls on the floor while grabbing an egg nog, that injury will be held to be compensable because on-premises injuries are compensable unless they constitute a deviation from employment.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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