The Holidays are Over. Is Your Office Party Injury Compensable?

Employers throw annual parties for the employees to commemorate another successful year. Of course, once the music starts going and the drinks start flowing, the employers are left with an annual headache of a question – are employees that were injured in relation to these festivities covered under Workers’ Compensation?

While compensability for office party injuries is a highly fact-intensive determination, claimants usually emerge victorious. Generally, even if the party was held off of the office premises, a fact-finder will rule in favor of the claimant where the employer sponsored the event for the purpose of promoting good will of employees and received the benefit of the good will generated. See, e.g. Torres v. Triangle Handbag Mfg. Co., 13 A.D.2d 559 (App. Div. 3d Dep’t 1961); Herman v. Greenpoint Barrel & Drum Reconditioning Co., 9 A.D.2d 572 (App. Div. 3d Dep’t 1959); American Express Publishing, 2008 NYWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 207.

However, there are a few additional facts to watch out for that have previously supported a finding in favor of the employer.

Intoxication

Section 10 of the Workers’ Compensation Law denies the right to compensation where the injury has been solely occasioned by intoxication from alcohol or a controlled substance. Thus, in a situation where the intoxication was the result of excessive personal use of alcohol that exceeds any rational relationship to a work-related office party, the injury will not be compensable. See generally Herman, 9 A.D.2d 572; Amwins Group, Inc., 2018 WL 1749004. However, this is a strict standard – evidence must be produced that demonstrates the injury arose solely by the claimant’s intoxication. Where the employer insufficiently proves claimant’s intoxication as the sole cause of the injury per the WCL, the court will likely defer to finding in favor of the claimant. See Torres, 13 A.D.2d 559; American Express Publishing, 2008 NYWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 207.

Traveling to or from an Office Party

Whether a claimant can be compensated for an injury that occurs traveling to or from an office party is extremely reliant upon the facts of the case. Generally, an injury sustained during travel to and from work is not compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Law as it does not arise out of and in the course of the injured worker’s employment. See Slack v. Livingston-Wyoming ARC Inc., 294 A.D.2d 716 (App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2002).

While few of these claims currently exist as it pertains to office parties, in March 2016, the Workers’ Compensation Board handled an on-point case in which claimant was a passenger in a car with coworkers and was leaving an office party when she was injured in a car accident. The party itself was off the office premises, the boss personally invited the entire office, and attendance was optional. Ultimately, the Board Panel found there was no evidence that the employer encouraged employees to attend the holiday party or that such an act benefited the employer in any way.  Thus, because the Board found that it was the claimant’s sole personal decision to attend the holiday party and ride home with her coworkers, it held the accident did not arise out of and in the course of employment. See generally Marissa Santos MD PC, 2016 NY Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 2123.

Hotel

If an employee is directed, as part of his duties, to remain in a particular place or locality for a specified length of time, the employee may indulge in any reasonable activity at that place, and if he does so, the risk inherent in such activity is an incident of his employment. Davis v. Newsweek Mag., 305 N.Y.20 (1953). While this has not yet been applied specifically to office parties, if the office party was deemed to be in the course of claimant’s employment, claimant would potentially be considered a business traveler.

In Capizzi v. Southern Dist. Reporters, Inc., claimant was injured in her hotel bathtub while she was on an out-of-town business trip. The Court of Appeals held that, inasmuch as claimant was required to work and stay at a place distant from home, was placed in a new environment thereby creating a greater risk of injury, and was engaged in a reasonable activity attendant to – although not directly related to – her employment duties, the injury should be compensable. See generally Capizzi, 61 N.Y.2d 50 (1984). Significantly, with regard to future claims involving office parties, this analysis may depend on whether the party was required.

Additionally, this analysis will also depend on what activity the claimant was engaged in when the injury occurred. For example, in Maher v. NYS Div. of Budget, claimant was injured while attending a training conference. However, because the injury occurred as a result of claimant climbing out onto the roof of her hotel, the court held that claimant deviated from her employment, that such an action was not reasonable, and as such, that claimant’s injury did not arise out of and in the scope of her employment. See generally Maher, 72 A.D.3d 1380 (App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2010).

At the end of the day, a crucial note to remember when considering whether an injury arising out of an office party may be compensable is this: the employer must scrupulously investigate each and every claim to have any and all facts on hand before going into the initial hearing. Missing a statement from a crucial witness at the party or lacking the report evincing an excessive blood-alcohol content level can be the difference in establishing or disallowing a claim from these events.

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