Play ball! But limit your liability at summer social events

Say your marketing director breaks his leg during an after-hours employee softball game against a crosstown company. Who’s responsible? You might be surprised.

Courts are very likely to say your organization is on the hook for a workers’ compensation claim if the event is closely aligned with your company.

The issue comes up often when employees are injured at events that the organization perceives as only marginally connected to the company. Sadly, an employer’s perception of its potential liability rarely carries much weight before a judge or jury.

A few years ago, such a dispute made it all the way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. In the end, it awarded workers’ compensation benefits to an employee who was injured while playing on the company team during an evening softball game because sports was part of the company’s “cultural climate.”

Did your organization benefit?

Whether your organization is liable depends largely on the degree to which you sponsored the event.

BP Handbook D

If you gain some benefit from the activity—say, in the form of publicity or better teamwork or improved employee morale—any injuries or liability arising from such activities is compensable.

If the connection between the company and the activity is less clear, the liability issue becomes a case-by-case decision, focusing on factors such as how much control the organization had over the event.

Some states have passed laws addressing the subject. For example, California law says employees can’t win compensation for injuries occurring from voluntary participation in off-duty recreational activities unless the employer “expressly or impliedly” requires them.

4 ways to play it safe

To avoid workers’ comp liability in such cases, draw a clear line dividing the activity from your organization’s involvement. Here are four ways to do so:

1. Hold the event off premises. That helps eliminate any implication that work is occurring before, during or after the activity.

2. Make it clear that participation is voluntary. In all communications, remind employees that they’re not obligated to participate.

3. Tell employees that they’re off duty during the hours the event takes place. Tell them that they’re free to leave whenever they wish.

4. Check your organization’s insurance coverage. Consider buying a so-called “special events” insurance rider, if necessary.

Advice: This is one of those situations in which calling your attorney might be one of the best decisions you can make. He or she can advise you on the law in your state. Ask if it is possible to limit your liability by asking employees to sign a waiver.