Police Softball Injuries And Workers’ Compensation

Cases from two different states illustrate the struggles courts have in deciding whether injuries suffered during off-duty employer-sanctioned sporting events should be covered by the workers’ compensation system.

The first of the cases involved Joanne Whitehead, a deputy sheriff for the Orange County, Florida Sheriff’s Department. After she reported to work one day, Whitehead received a series of e-mails informing her that two sections of the Sheriff’s Department were having an inter-department softball game, and that she could participate in the softball game and receive full pay, and that she could still discharge her duties by carrying a pager and cell phone to answer any official calls.

Whitehead was injured running the bases, and filed a workers’ compensation claim for the damage to her wrist. Whitehead received her full wages while playing in the softball game.

The Florida Court of Appeals rejected Whitehead’s claim for workers’ compensation. The Court found that Whitehead’s participation in the game was “recreational activity” and “not mandatory.” Somewhat inexplicably, the Court also found that Whitehead was “on call” when playing in the softball game.
A dissenting judge argued that the softball game was employer-sanctioned, and that Whitehead was actually receiving her full pay and was not on call during the game. In the eyes of the dissenting judge, employees “who are on duty, receiving compensation, and engaging in activities authorized by their employers” should be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries suffered while engaging in those activities.

Reaching a different conclusion, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld a state trooper’s workers’ compensation claim for injuries suffered in a softball game. The case involved Charles Dalton, who received an e-mail message from his supervisor asking troopers to volunteer to play in a charity softball game against volunteers from the New Castle Police Department. During the game, Dalton severely broke his wrist, and was disabled for several months.

The police charity softball game was an annual event organized by the Town of Middletown. Participation in the event by state troopers was approved seven years ago by high-ranking State Police personnel. The State Police provided uniforms for the state troopers that played in the game, and the officers provided the rest of their equipment. The game took place on a weekend and involved only state troopers who were not on duty.

Six state troopers who testified in the hearing on the workers’ compensation claim agreed that participation in charity events such as the softball game was part of a state trooper’s job. The troopers further agreed that the State Police received a benefit from the participation, namely, the charity work presented a positive image of police officers to the community.

The Court found that the State Police had “brought charitable events such as this one into ‘the orbit of employment’ for troopers, by soliciting volunteers through requests from superior officers, and by creating a promotion system that effectively requires attendance at charity events. It is clear that the State derives a benefit from participation by state troopers at such events.”

Whitehead v. Orange County Sheriff’s Department, 2005 WL 1651168 (Fla.App. 2005); State of Delaware v. Charles Dalton, 2005 WL 1653723 (Del. 2005).

This article appears in the September 2005 issue