Who’s Liable When a Worker Is Hurt While Playing on a Company Team?

Beth Burkstrand writes for the Washington Post

The bat cracked, and the spectators roared. Will Sjoberg, an associate with law firm LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae, sprinted to catch the ball for his firm’s team. But the ground was uneven. He wobbled, lost his footing and a crack of a different type was heard--his collarbone breaking.

A trip to the emergency room, bimonthly X-rays and eight months of orthopedic visits later, he says he has no idea what his treatment cost. His firm paid every cent of his medical bills.

That’s how it happens at some workplaces. The sports teams that the office fields have become so ingrained an institution that time spent on the field is treated as time on the job.

Injuries suffered during play are covered by workers’ compensation payments. But knowing that they might get the bill, many companies have strict guidelines governing the games--no beer and no sliding, for instance.

Other firms, often ones that haven’t encountered injury on the diamond, have given little thought to who would be liable. Still others distance themselves from the games, hoping to reduce the organization’s liability.


But whatever approach the employer takes, the game goes on.

Some employment specialists say that company responsibility is the right way to go. “In many cases, companies are putting employees at risk by sponsoring these things and by pressuring employees to participate,” said Lynn Stout, corporate law and economics professor at Georgetown University Law School. But “if they don’t lay down guidelines, they are exposing themselves to a risk.”


Giant Food Inc. has put in place an extensive policy governing its 50 corporate softball teams, which are part of a larger company-sponsored wellness program, said Henry Hailstock, Giant’s personnel services manager.

Slide, block a base, drink a beer, get into a fight, harass a co-worker or forget to warm up and you’re out--probably of the game and, in extreme circumstances, of a job, he said.

There are many benefits to having corporate teams, according to Hailstock, including building a healthier work force and increasing teamwork and camaraderie.

So at Giant, the teams are administered by the company. Scores are called into the personnel office. Injuries are too. Hailstock wouldn’t say how many injuries workers have suffered while playing, but said they have ranged in seriousness from sprained fingers to injured backs.

“We consider it as on the job, and we pay workers’ compensation,” he said. “We feel that the staffers’ morale is more important than worrying about who will pay for medical bills.”

But Patrick DiDomenico, editor of the National Institute of Business Management’s Research Recommendations newsletter, says the level of involvement that Giant demonstrates can increase an employer’s liability.

His publication recently put together a list of guidelines that would help companies argue--in a courtroom--that bills shouldn’t come to them. Companies should hold games and practices off company property and not during work hours; avoid pressuring employees to play; prohibit alcohol at games; and let employees be the force behind organizing teams.


Despite such recommendations, many teams are still largely unregulated, in some cases because employers reason that sports are extracurricular.

“This is an after-work activity,” said Julio Rojas, who coaches the AmeriScores softball team for the Corporation for National Service, the federal agency that administers volunteer programs. “Liability--well, you are on your own.”

Some teams take a lighthearted approach, especially when it comes to the sport of beer drinking. Take the Congressional Softball League, which has on- and off-the-hill teams. Its World Wide Web site informs visitors that “the House slow-pitch Congressional Softball League emphasizes sportsmanship in the ‘B’ [Beer-drinking] Conference.”

Congressional teams are covered with liability insurance, however: up to $1 million in spectator (not player) personal injury, and $500,000 in property liability.

At the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide vs. Kamber Group softball match, beer was in abundance. “We only serve Miller products because Miller is a client of ours,” said Jennifer Wayman, a vice president at Ogilvy.

Injured Ogilvy players are covered under workers’ compensation.

“It makes perfect sense to have guidelines” for games, said Ogilvy Coach Cabe Franklin, but “you have to trust adults to behave right.”

The same goes for companies, said Sjoberg, the law firm associate who broke his collarbone. He’s now back playing ball for the LeBoeuf LeBuffalos. In spite of his injuries, and other players’, his firm still has sports teams, and alcohol and sliding into bases are still OK.

All of which suits Sjoberg fine. An employer that refuses to pay medical costs would not only be presenting a disincentive to play, but also to work for that company, he said. “That would show me that my employer really didn’t care about me at all.”