A Massachusetts teacher injured while voluntarily chaperoning students on a ski trip is entitled to workers compensation benefits, the state’s highest court has ruled.
On a Peabody High School ski club trip, Karen Sikorski, a mathematics teacher at the school, was injured in a 2004 ski trip to Mount Ascutney in Brownsville, Vt. Sikorski sought workers’ compensation coverage for her medical expenses, which her employer, the city of Peabody, a self-insurer, denied on the grounds that the injury was noncompensable because it occurred while she participated voluntarily in a recreational activity.
The denial of benefits was upheld by two administrative judges but on appeal the state Department of Industrial Accidents, in a divided decision, eventually awarded her workers’ compensation benefits, concluding that the recreational aspect of serving as a chaperone was incidental to her duties in monitoring student safety and behavior. The city of Peabody appealed that ruling.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Judith Cowin, has now affirmed the DIA’s decision, agreeing that a teacher who acts as a chaperone to students participating in a school-sponsored activity “is acting in the course of her employment” and is not engaged in “recreational” activity within the meaning of the state’s workers’ compensation law.
A lawyer for the city said that under the high court’s ruling, the scope of liability for municipalities “has been widened tremendously.”
Now, the workplace “seems to extend to a mountaintop,” Assistant City Solicitor Brian Barrett told The Associated Press.
“I think that’s far beyond what any municipality anticipates when they hire a teacher to do what is their primary function, which is to teach in a classroom,” Barrett said. “I think as employers we have to look at that ruling and decide what, if any, activities need to be curtailed.”
Sikorski’s attorney, Alan Pierce, told AP that although Sikorski’s role as a chaperone was voluntary, she was acting in her capacity as a teacher.
“The students could not ski unless there was a chaperone going down the trail with them,” Pierce said. “She engaged in the duties of a teacher, albeit on the ski slopes. She wasn’t teaching math, but she was maintaining order, re-enforcing rules and watching out for the well-being of adolescents.”
Pierce said Sikorski used sick time for her surgeries and physical therapy. He said she filed the workers compensation claim to recover her sick time and any medical co-payments not covered by her health insurance.
The case falls into one of the gray areas in workers’ compensation known as “forced fun” cases involving employment-related recreational and entertainment activities such as softball games, dinners and team-building exercises, according to Christopher Boggs, author of The Insurance Professional’s Practical Guide to Workers’ Compensation: From History through Audit published by Insurance Journal, and associate editor of the industry Web site, MyNewMarkets.com.
States vary in how lenient or strict they are about recognizing injuries from work-related recreational, social or athletic activities. Decisions often hinge on whether the activity is truly voluntary, whether employees feel free to excuse themselves or worry they might be penalized in some way if they fail to participate. In short, the issue is whether the fun is more “forced” or voluntary on the employee’s part.
In the Massachusetts acse, the ski club is officially sanctioned by the school committee of Peabody. Each year students participating in the ski club take four day-long ski trips and one overnight ski trip. One teacher receives a stipend for serving as the ski club’s adviser, but the city provides the ski club with no other financial support. The ski club’s other expenses are covered by independent fund raising and fees paid by students.
Teachers, including Sikorski, serving as chaperones are not paid for their services, but the ski club pays their trip expenses. Chaperones are expected to supervise the students while they ride on the bus to and from the ski area, while they ski, and while they stay overnight in the lodge. Although no teacher can be forced to serve as a chaperone, the school administration has expected teachers to become involved with the school’s extracurricular activities and teachers are encouraged to serve as ski club chaperones.
While acting as chaperones, the school employees ski with the students and other chaperones. While skiing, Sikorski fell and injured her shoulder. Her injury required two surgeries and a physical therapy regimen.
In determining whether injuries sustained during an employee’s recreation are compensable, the Massachusetts court has traditionally applied a five-factor test. Under this test, justices weigh the customary nature of the activity, the employer’s encouragement or subsidization of the activity, the extent to which the employer managed or directed the activity, the presence of pressure or compulsion to participate, and the employer’s expected or actual benefit from the employee’s participation.
In 1985, the Legislature added a provision to the workers’ compensation statute that excluded “any injury resulting from an employee’s purely voluntary participation in any recreational activity, including but not limited to athletic events, parties, and picnics, even though the employer pays some or all of the cost thereof.”
Despite the 1985 amendment, the court said that the five-prong test remains authoritative for the purpose of determining whether an injury arises out of and in the course of a worker’s employment.
Weighing these factors, the court said is clear that the employee’s skiing as a chaperone arose out of and in the course of her employment as a teacher, even though her participation as a chaperone was voluntary. Justice Cowin wrote:
“First, it was customary for teachers to serve as chaperones for the ski club’s trips and to perform many of their functions as teachers while they did. The chaperones were responsible for supervising student behavior, enforcing school rules, and monitoring student safety. These supervisory responsibilities are essentially the same ones teachers must exercise while working in the school building during school hours.
“Second, the city encouraged teachers to participate as ski club chaperones. Both the school principal and the ski club adviser solicited teachers to serve as chaperones.
“Finally, the ski club’s trips benefited the city by furthering the school’s educational mission.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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