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Indiana Expands Workers’ Compensation Compensability to Broaden Coverage for “Volunteer Work”

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By James P. Scheidler, Esq.

April 12, 2017

In John C. Morris v. Custom Kitchen & Baths, 64 N.E.3d 912 (Ind. Ct. App. 2016), trans. denied (March 2017), a licensed building contractor demonstrated sufficient connection between volunteer work and his business such that the injury arose out of and in the course of his employment, entitling him to workers’ compensation benefits under Indiana’s Workers’ Compensation Act. 

In August 2012, John Morris was assisting his son with a Boy Scout project at an Evansville church when he fell from the roof of a storage shed and fractured his right leg, resulting in three separate surgeries.  Following his injury, Morris, who was the sole proprietor of Custom Kitchen Baths, filed an application for adjustment of claim with the Indiana Workers’ Compensation Board for benefits.  His application was denied at both a single member and full Board hearing.  The Board held that Morris failed to meet his burden of showing his injuries arose out of and occurred in the course of his employment. 

Morris appealed, arguing the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Knox v. Cary, 813 N.E.2d 1170 (Ind. 2004), should be expanded to cover the facts and circumstances of his incident.  The Knox Court held “where the employer’s interest in sponsoring an after-hours activity are not merely altruistic, but are also intended to improve the business, the activity may be incidental to employment.”  Traditionally, situations involving “after-hours activity” have been held to only involve company functions (i.e. holiday parties, employee-appreciation events, retreats, etc.). 

Even though Morris admitted his volunteer work was primarily to benefit his son’s Boy Scout endeavors, Morris’ presented evidence that his company had a history of garnering substantial goodwill and additional business as a result of “volunteering” in the community.  Three (3) witnesses testified they hired Morris after observing his work from prior volunteer projects.  In addition, Morris donated materials to his son’s Boy Scout project (deducting them as business expense) and used Custom Bath and Kitchen tools and equipment during the project.  Ultimately, the Court of Appeals found that Morris’ community endeavors were akin to “networking” that generated business to Custom Kitchen & Baths.  Therefore, the Board’s decision to deny Morris benefits was overturned.

The Morris decision underscored the importance of the Board needing to place greater emphasis on an employer’s public image and goodwill in the community when presented with applicants who sustain injuries while engaged in volunteer work. 

For workers’ compensation insurance carriers, or self-insured employers, so long as there is a plausible employer benefit derived from the community-sponsored activity, you can anticipate the Indiana Workers’ Compensation Board to now error on the side of awarding benefits to injured volunteer workers.  

If you have any questions regarding this decision or any issues of Workers’ Compensation law in the State of Indiana, please contact one of our Workers’ Compensation Practice Group Members.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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