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Tennessee Supreme Court Reviews Compensability of Injuries Sustained During Recreational Activities

For years, courts in Tennessee have looked to the "Larson test" when dealing with workers' compensation injuries that occurred during a recreational activity. The "Larson Test" provides that recreational activity injuries are compensable when:

1. they occur on employer's premises during a lunch or recreational period as a regular incident of the employment; or

2. the employer, either expressly or impliedly requires participation, or makes the activity part of the services of the employee, brings the activity within the orbit of employment; or

3. the employer derives substantial direct benefit from the activity beyond the intangible value of improvement in employee health and morale that is common to all kinds of recreation and social life.

In a September 8, 2005 decision, Phyllis A. Young v. Taylor-White, LLC, the Tennessee Supreme Court appeared to substantially alter the "Larson test". It appeared that the "Larson test" had been replaced by a test that emphasized whether or not a recreational activity was mandated by an employer (in which case the injury would be compensable) or was engaged in voluntarily by an employee (in which case the injury would not be compensable).

In a September 6, 2007 decision, Lenore H. Gooden, et al. v. Coors Technical Ceramic Company, the Tennessee Supreme Court clarified and changed the holding in the Young v. Taylor-White case. The Court determined that the voluntary nature of an activity is but one factor to consider in determining whether an activity occurs during the course of employment.

In Coors, an employee (Gregory Gooden) worked the night shift at Coors Technical Ceramic Company. Gooden died of a heart attack while participating in a game of basketball during a thirty (30) minute break. Gooden's widow filed a Complaint for workers' compensation benefits. The Trial Court found that the basketball goal had been purchased by a group of employees and installed on Coors premises, that Coors had knowledge that the employees played basketball during their breaks and acquiesced in the activity, and that employees were strongly encouraged not to work through their breaks. The Trial Court further found that Gooden's participation in the basketball game was voluntarily. The Trial Court concluded, based upon the Taylor-White precedent, that the injury did not arise out of the course and scope of employment, as the recreational activity was voluntary. The Supreme Court overruled that decision, and determined that the claim was compensable and occurred within the course and scope of employment. The Supreme Court determined that the recreational activity in this instance was a regular incident of employment 1) because the employer knowingly permitted the activities to occur several times a week; and 2) the injury occurred on the employer's premises. Thus, despite the fact that the recreational activity was not mandatory, the other two factors were relied upon by the Court to award workers' compensation benefits to Gooden.

Clearly, the decision in the Coors matter has very broad implications regarding how employers are to regard voluntary recreational activities. Company picnics, onsite workout rooms, and company sponsored sports events are now likely venues in which compensable injuries can occur. The employer can no longer protect itself from liability simply by making an activity voluntary.

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