Workers Compensation Benefits

No benefits for dancing-related injuries, court rules.

Karastamatis v. Industrial Commission, 1999 WL 391347 (Ill. App. 1999)

Background. Workers compensation laws have been enacted in all fifty states. These laws provide compensation to employees as a result job-related injuries and illnesses. The amount of compensation is determined by law and generally is based upon the nature and extent of the employee’s disability. In exchange for such benefits, employees give up the right to sue an employer directly. Fault is irrelevant under workers compensation laws. The only issues are (1) did an employment relationship exist; (2) did the injury occur during the course of employment; and (3) what were the nature and extent of the injuries?

church employees are protected by workers compensation laws in most states. However, there are exceptions. A few states exempt churches and nonprofit organizations from workers compensation coverage, and some states exempt employers having less than a specified number of employees.

Caution. If a church is not exempt from workers compensation law, what is the effect of its failure to obtain workers compensation insurance? Most workers compensation laws are compulsory. The employer cannot elect to remain outside the system. In a “compulsory” jurisdiction, a covered employer that fails to obtain workers compensation insurance will ordinarily be subject to a lawsuit by an injured employee, or may be treated as a “self-insurer” and be liable for the damages specified by the workers compensation law. A few states permit employers to elect coverage under workers compensation law. To coerce employers into electing coverage, these states impose various penalties upon employers that do not elect coverage.

A recent case. A recent case illustrates the application of workers compensation law to church workers. A church hired a man to work at its annual 3-day picnic which was held each year in the church’s parking lot. The worker set up tents, drove a van, cleaned, and stocked beverages and food. On the last day of the picnic, the worker served food and beverages. He took a break at 2 p.m. He resumed work and took his next break at 11:30 p.m. By this time the picnic was winding down and the worker asked a church officer if he could join other workers and guests who were dancing. He was told to “go ahead.” The worker then joined the other dancers and apparently became the leader in performing a “Greek dance”. After five or six minutes of dancing, he slipped and fell backwards to the ground, injuring his knee. He later claimed that the parking lot had oil spots on it which caused him to slip.

The worker filed an application for workers compensation benefits, claiming that he was a church employee and that his injury occurred during the course of his employment. A state workers compensation commission determined that the worker’s injury had not occurred in the course of his employment, and denied any benefits. The worker appealed.

The court began its opinion by noting that for the worker to qualify for workers compensation benefits he “must demonstrate that his injuries arose out of and in the course of his employment.” For an injury to arise out of the employment: “[T]he risk of injury must be a risk peculiar to the work or a risk to which the employee is exposed to a greater degree than the general public by reason of his employment.” An injury is not eligible for workers compensation benefits “if it resulted from a risk personal to the employee rather than incidental to the employment.” The court noted a “personal risk” is not necessarily converted into an employment risk simply because the employer allowed it. The court concluded:

[The worker’s] injuries did not result from some risk or hazard peculiar to his employment. [He] was hired to set up and stock the picnic and serve beer and food. He was not hired to dance. The risk of injury from dancing was not peculiar to [his] work or incidental to his employment because it did not belong to, nor was it in any way connected with, what [he] had to do in fulfilling his contract of service. [The worker] voluntarily exposed himself to an unnecessary danger entirely separate and apart from the activities and responsibilities of his job. His act of dancing was a personal act, solely for his own convenience; an act outside any employment risk. Further, [he] presented no evidence to show he was at an increased risk of injury from dancing because he was working at a picnic sponsored by a … church where his duties were to stock the picnic and serve food and beverages. Simply put, the risk of injury [the worker] was exposed to while dancing was neither peculiar to nor increased by the nature of his employment.

The worker insisted that his injuries arose out of his employment because he was injured while on a break and therefore the “personal comfort doctrine” applied. The court defined the personal comfort doctrine as follows: “Employees who, within the time and space limits of their employment, engage in acts which minister to personal comfort do not thereby leave the course of employment, unless the … method chosen is so unusual and unreasonable that the conduct cannot be considered an incident of the employment.”

The court noted that the personal comfort doctrine generally applies when an employee is on break and sustains an injury. It covers acts such as eating and drinking, obtaining fresh air, seeking relief from heat or cold, showering, resting, and restroom breaks. However, for the personal comfort doctrine to apply, an employee’s injury must “still be related to the employment environment and not a hazard to which [the employee] would have been equally exposed apart from his employment.” In this case, it was not the employment environment or premises that caused the worker’s injury, but rather the worker’s decision to engage in dancing while on break. Such conduct was simply too far removed from the employment environment to qualify for workers compensation benefits. The court observed that “there is no evidence that the conditions of the employment or the premises caused [the worker’s] injury nor is there any evidence that [he] was at an increased risk.” It concluded that “the risk of injury from dancing was personal to [the worker] and neither peculiar to his job nor a risk to which he was exposed to a greater degree than the general public.”

Significance to church treasurers. What is the significance of this case to church treasurers? Consider the following points:

  1. Are we subject to workers compensation? Church treasurers should know whether their church is subject to state workers compensation law. If you are not sure if your church is covered, consider one or more of the following steps: (1) ask a local attorney; (2) ask your church insurance agent; or (3) call the agency in your state that administers the workers compensation program.
  2. The risk of being uninsured. Employers that are covered by workers compensation law generally pay insurance premiums to cover the cost of benefits paid to injured workers. However, many churches have failed to obtain workers compensation insurance, often because of a false assumption that they are not covered by workers compensation law. This can expose a church to significant liability, for two reasons. First, an injured employee may be able to sue the church for damages in a civil lawsuit. Unlike workers compensation benefits, there is no limit on the amount a court can award in a civil lawsuit. Second, the damages a court awards in a civil lawsuit will not be covered under most church insurance policies. Often, general liability policies exclude employee injuries on the assumption that they are covered under a workers compensation policy. This can create a dangerous gap in coverage.
  3. Do we have workers compensation insurance? If your church is subject to workers compensation law, then be sure you have obtained workers compensation insurance. If in doubt, ask your church insurance agent.
  4. Employees. Workers compensation laws only cover injuries and illnesses suffered by employees on the job, but the term employee is defined very broadly to further the objectives of workers compensation law. As a result, persons whom a church may deem self-employed for income tax purposes may be deemed employees for purposes of the workers compensation law. This case is a good example. The employee status of the worker was not questioned, even though he was hired to work only for three days at a church picnic.
  5. Injuries occurring in the course of employment. This case provides a useful clarification of workers compensation law. It demonstrates that church employees may qualify for workers compensation benefits for injuries they while on a job-related break. This no doubt will come as a surprise to many church leaders. However, not every injury occurring to an employee during a break will qualify for benefits. Such injuries must be related to the employment environment or premises. In this case, there were witnesses who directly contradicted the worker’s claim that he slipped on oil in the parking lot. As a result, the court concluded that the injury was not directly associated with the employer’s premises. Further, the act of dancing was so far removed from the employment environment that the injury did not qualify for benefits.

  6. Key point. The court’s ruling exposes the church to a civil lawsuit by the injured employee. However, since the court determined that the injury did not occur in the course of the worker’s employment, the church ‘s general liability insurance policy should provide coverage in the event the worker sues the church.

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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