A South Carolina worker who was injured in a kickball game he organized for his employer should receive workers compensation benefits because he was expected by his employer to attend the game, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.
Stephen Whigham was director of creative solutions for Jackson Dawson Communications, a marketing and public relations firm in Greenville, South Carolina, according to court filings. The company holds team-building events to develop an “enjoyable work atmosphere,” and Mr. Whigham organized a company kickball game as one of those events with approval and funding from his employer.
During the game, which was attended by about half of the Jackson Dawson staff, Mr. Whigham “landed awkwardly” on his right leg, shattering his tibia and fibula, court records show. He underwent two surgeries and was told that he would need a knee replacement in the near future.
A South Carolina workers comp commissioner denied workers comp benefits to Mr. Whigham, ruling that his injury did not arise out of or in the course of his employment, records show. The full South Carolina Workers' Compensation Commission affirmed that ruling, finding that Mr. Whigham wasn't required to attend the kickball event and that his participation in the game didn't benefit the company beyond “general employee morale.”
The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the commission's rulings in 2012, records show. Mr. Whigham appealed.
Attendance deemed part of professional duties
In a 3-2 decision, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings and granted workers comp benefits to Mr. Whigham. The high court's ruling said that Mr. Whigham was expected to attend the game, and therefore his injuries arose out of his employment.
“Although the event may have been voluntary for company employees generally, the undisputed facts unequivocally indicate Whigham was expected to attend as part of his professional duties,” the majority opinion reads.
The court also cited the fact that Mr. Whigham's boss encouraged him to organize the kickball game and that Jackson Dawson provided funding for the activity.
“Whigham exercised initiative in responding to a need expressed by Jackson Dawson, and the company encouraged him in carrying out his plan. Organizing and attending the game thereby became part of his employment,” the majority opinion reads.
In his dissent, Judge John W. Kittredge said that Mr. Whigham was not required to participate in the kickball game, even if it was expected that he would attend the event that he organized.
The case was remanded for findings on Mr. Whigham's disability and benefits.