An Illinois state appeals court has affirmed the ruling of a lower court that an employee at a fitness facility, who was injured during a game of WallyBall, is entitled to benefits for his injury under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act (Act).
In so ruling, the court found that Claimant Sean T. Murphy, an Elmhurst Park District employee, was participating in the game because the players needed another player and he felt it was his responsibility to participate in the game.
After the injury occurred on January 3, 2002, Murphy sought benefits, pursuant to the Act. The respondent countered that the claimant’s injury was not compensable by virtue of section 11 of the Act (820 ILCS 320/11 (West 2002)), which “precludes an employee from recovering for accidental injuries incurred while participating in ‘voluntary recreational programs’ unless the employee was ordered or assigned by the employer to participate in the activity.”
The arbitrator disagreed, awarding claimant benefits after “finding that his injury arose out of and in the course of his employment with respondent. The arbitrator found that section 11 did not apply because claimant’s participation in the wallyball game did not constitute a ‘voluntary recreational activity’ as contemplated by section 11. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (Commission) affirmed the decision of the arbitrator, and the circuit court of Cook County confirmed.”
On appeal, the park district made the same argument it had made before.
In considering the appeal, the panel of judges noted that one of Murphy’s duties “was to promote and implement the classes and programs that respondent offered its patrons,” which involved “helping out with any of the programs or classes along with helping the members and customers.”
Other relevant evidence centered on a coworker, who approached Murphy and asked him to participate in a wallyball game. While McElroy was not Murphy’s supervisor, she told him that without his assistance the game could not go forward “because they didn’t have enough people to participate.” Murphy relented and the injury occurred 15 minutes into the game. The appeals court also noted that Murphy stated that he “felt that it was part of his job to promote different classes and programs.”
To prove that the claimant was not entitled to benefits, the respondent had to show that the activity he participated in was “recreational” in nature, according to the appeals court
“Although section 11 provides several general examples of activities which may be considered ‘recreational,’ the Act does not expressly define the term,” wrote the court, citing Cary Fire Protection District v. Industrial Comm’n, 211 Ill.App.3d 20, 25 (1991).
To do this, the court turned to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1899 (2002), and its definition of the word “recreation,” or “the act of recreating or the state of being recreated: refreshment of the strength and spirits after toil: DIVERSION, PLAY.”
Thus, the court found, “the claimant was not engaged in a ‘recreational’ activity as contemplated by section 11 of the Act at the time of his injury.
“Our finding is further buttressed by the Commission’s determination that claimant’s participation in the wallyball game was incidental to his employment,” wrote the court. “Respondent asserts that claimant’s duties centered on the fitness department and his supervisor testified that none of his duties involved racquet sports, the department which encompasses the wallyball program. However, according to claimant’s written job description, his responsibilities included ‘promoting Elmhurst Park District programs.’
“This clearly does not limit claimant to promoting only fitness-department programs. Similarly, claimant was required to ‘develop and maintain positive customer service with internal and external customers.’ Again, this responsibility does not restrict claimant from attending to customers outside of the fitness department. Indeed, as we noted previously, claimant testified that he felt that participating in the wallyball game was part of his job because one of the requirements of his position was to help out with any programs or classes respondent offered its patrons. Claimant’s belief was reasonable in light of his written job description. Therefore, the evidence supports the Commission’s finding that claimant’s participation in the wallyball game was incidental to his employment.”
Elmhurst Park District v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission and Sean T. Murphy; App. Ct. Ill,, First District, Workers’ Compensation Commission Division; No. 1-08-2289WC.; 10/6/09