NJ Supreme Court Rules that Employee-Volunteer at “Family Fun Day” Is Eligible for Workers’ Compensation Benefits
Feb 18, 2021 | Written by: Share|
The New Jersey Supreme Court has further defined the contours of the “social or recreational activity” exception to the Workers’ Compensation Act. See N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. In Goulding v. New Jersey Friendship House, No. 083726, 2021 WL 415900 (N.J. Feb. 8, 2021), the Court held that the claimant’s injuries were compensable because, despite the fact that she volunteered to serve as a cook at her employer’s “Family Fun Day” event, the event was not social or recreational as to her.
Under New Jersey's Workers’ Compensation Act, an employee injured during a social or recreational activity generally cannot receive compensation for those injuries. However, the Act provides an exception to that general rule and expressly permits compensation “when such recreational or social activities 1) are a regular incident of employment and 2) produce a benefit to the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.” See N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.
In Goulding, the claimant was an employee of North Jersey Friendship House, Inc., a non-profit organization that assists individuals with developmental disabilities. 2021 WL 415900, at *3. She worked for Friendship House as a cook and cooking instructor. Ibid. Goulding was injured when she fell while volunteering as a cook at “Family Fun Day,” an event Friendship House held for its clients. Ibid. She volunteered to work at the event, with no adverse consequences if she did not. Id. at *4.
The workers’ compensation court focused on “Family Fun Day” as a whole, concluding that it was a “social or recreational activity” and, therefore, Goulding was not entitled to benefits. Id. at *3. The Appellate Division affirmed. Ibid. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that “[w]hether an activity is social or recreational should turn on the employee’s role in the activity – whether she is participating as a guest or providing services for her employer at the event.” Ibid. Here, “Goulding was volunteering to cook (her regular job) for an event her employer was hosting” for its clients. Id. at *10. Although “Family Fun Day” was a social or recreational event, Goulding was not participating in the social or recreational activities. Ibid. Therefore, it was not a “social or recreational” event as to her. Ibid.
Moreover, the Court went on to say that Goulding would also be entitled to compensation under the exception to N.J.S.A. 34:15-7, which permits compensation for injuries sustained during a social or recreational activity that is 1) a “regular incident of employment,” and that 2) “produce[s] a benefit to the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.” Ibid. The Court found that both prongs were met here. First, the event qualified as a “regular incident of employment” because it was an annual event, and although volunteering was non-compulsory, Goulding would not have been present at the event but for her employer’s request for volunteers. Id. at *11. The second prong of the test was also met because there was little evidence that “Family Fun Day” improved employee health and morale. To the contrary, the event was not for employees, but Friendship House clients. Id. at 12. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and held that the injury sustained by Goulding while volunteering at her employer-sponsored event was compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Id. at *12-13.