Workers’ comp benefits not provided to employees injured after a party

In North Carolina, workers' compensation benefits are designed to provide employees with compensation for the loss of earning capacity resulting from an injury or occupational disease incurred while on the job. The Insurance Journal notes that claims for workers' compensation benefits sometimes fall into so-called "gray areas" where it is not immediately clear whether or not an employee's injury is properly classified as an on-the-job injury for purposes of entitlement to workers' comp benefits. Recently, Business Insurance Magazine found a North Carolina Court of Appeals decision to be especially notable for addressing a situation that arguably fell into one of the gray areas.

The Graven case

In Graven v. N.C. Dept. of Public Safety, the plaintiffs were technical support analysts for the State Highway Patrol. In December of 2010, the plaintiffs received emails from their supervisor inviting SHP employees to attend a holiday lunch at a certain restaurant in order to celebrate their hard work. Attendance was voluntary and attendees were required to pay for their own meals. The plaintiffs rode to the restaurant in a state-owned vehicle even though this vehicle was not authorized for use to attend the party.

Attendance was not taken, no awards were presented and no formal speeches were made. After lunch, the plaintiffs were returning to the SHP office in the state-owned vehicle when the driver encountered a patch of ice and lost control. Both plaintiffs sustained injuries. The N.C. Industrial Commission concluded that the plaintiffs' injuries were not within the course and scope of their employment. The plaintiffs appealed.

The issue before the court was whether the automobile injuries sustained by the plaintiffs while returning to work from a social event arose out of and occurred in the course of their employment thereby entitling them to workers' compensation benefits.

The court began by finding that it agreed with the Commission that the social event was more for the benefit of the employees than for the benefit of the employer. The court said that in order for a social event to be considered a benefit to the employer-thereby making an injury at the event an on-the-job injury-the benefit must bestow some concrete advantage such as an event where speeches and awards are made, as opposed to an unstructured affair designed to better good will and morale. In the matter before it, any benefit to the employer was found to be de minimus at best.

Continuing, the court noted that the injuries in question did not occur at the social event itself but while traveling back to the workplace. Invoking the "coming and going rule," the court stated that workers' compensation benefits are not awarded to employees injured while traveling to and from the place of employment unless one of the exceptions to the rule applies. Finding that no exception to the coming-and-going rule applied, the court concluded that application of the rule showed that the plaintiffs were not entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Accordingly, the Commission's denial of benefits was affirmed.

Seeking compensation

If you believe you have sustained an on-the-job injury, you should contact a North Carolina attorney experienced in handling workers' compensation claims as soon as possible. Workers' compensation benefits are quite often contested by employers. Many cases end up being litigated before the courts. An attorney will be glad to discuss your situation and determine whether you may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits under North Carolina law.