After 40 years
By: Floyd G. Cottrell, Cottrell Solensky, P.A.
After 40 years, the New Jersey Supreme Court finally addressed the issue raised in the 1979 amendment to N.J.SA 34:15-7 regarding whether injuries incurred at employer-sponsored social events or recreational activities are compensable or not. On February 8, 2021, the Court opined in Goulding v. NJ Friendship House, Inc. (A-48-19), that an injury sustained at a social and or recreational event which benefits the employer beyond the health and morale of the employees are compensable.
NJ Friendship House, a non-profit that supports individuals with developmental disabilities, employed Kim Goulding. Ms. Goulding was employed as a cook/chef. Friendship House hosted a “Family Fund Day” event on September 23, 2017, intending it to be an annual event going forward. Friendship House requested volunteers to work the event. Employees were not obligated to work the event. Goulding volunteered to cook for the event, which is in fact her normal job at the Friendship House. On the day of the event Ms. Goulding injured her ankle.
Ms. Goulding filed a claim petition. NJ Friendship House denied the claim. The Judge of Compensation and the Appellate Court found for the employer and rejected the claim. However, the Supreme Court sided with the Petitioner in finding that the “Family Fund Day” event was not a social nor recreational activity for Goulding’s benefit, but rather for the benefit of her employer, which received “intangible benefits” of goodwill in the community. Goulding was performing the same duties as cook/chef as she would in the normal course of here employment.
The fundamental issue was that the Petitioner, Ms. Goulding, was working the event and not engaging in the social or recreational activity. However, the Court did not address the fact that if Ms. Goulding had changed her mind and participated in the social and recreational activities as well as cooking what would have been the outcome.
New Jersey now draws a distinction between social events and recreational activity that benefits clients and business development as opposed to simply promoting the health and morale of employees. Goulding suggests that if an employer hosts a social event either during or outside normal working hours that is restricted to employees and their families, then an injury occurring at the event is not covered. Conversely, if the event to open to outsiders such as clients, vendors or the community at large, thus conferring some business benefits to the employee even if as inchoate as goodwill, then an event-related injury is compensable.