John Graven and Kathryn Wall worked as technical support analysts in the North Carolina State Highway Patrol providing software training to State Troopers and civilians in Raleigh and around the State. They worked four days per week, from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and were permitted to take a 30-minute paid lunch break.
In 2010, their supervisor sent out three emails over the course of several days inviting employees to attend a holiday lunch on December 16 “to celebrate the department’s hard work.” Attendance was voluntary, and attendees were required to pay for their own meals, though they benefitted from a group discount offered by the restaurant. Graven and Wall decided to attend the holiday lunch and rode to the restaurant in a state-owned vehicle, which had been signed out by another employee.
Less than half of the employees who were invited actually attended the holiday lunch. Attendance was not taken at the lunch. No awards were presented at the lunch. No formal speeches were given at the lunch; however, three supervisors made brief remarks, welcoming the attendees and thanking them for their service.
After the lunch, the driver of the car, who was also a SHP employee, encountered a patch of ice and lost control of the vehicle, causing it to collide with a tree. As a result of this accident, Graven was paralyzed from the chest down, and Wall sustained a concussion and some cuts and bruises. A sergeant later testified that even though Graven and Wall rode in a state vehicle it was not authorized for use to attend the holiday lunch and if the vehicle had been requested for the purpose of attending the holiday lunch that request would have been denied.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the denial of Graven’s and Wall’s workers’ compensation claims for their injuries. The Court found that while the employees “were traveling to the holiday lunch, they were doing so for their own benefit. Although they testified that they attended the holiday lunch because they felt it was important for the morale of the department, less than half of the employees attended the lunch, and the benefit to the employer, if any, was de minimis.
“For a social event to be considered a benefit to the employer in the context of determining whether an injury at the event is covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act, the benefit must not be merely in a vague way through better morale and good will, but through such tangible advantages as having an opportunity to make speeches and awards. It is undisputed that at least three supervisors gave brief remarks before and during the lunch thanking employees for their dedication, but there was testimony that these remarks did not rise to the level of a speech.
“Though the holiday lunch was not provided at the Patrol’s expense, the Patrol did provide an occasion for the employees to participate in an outing which was a matter of good will in that it was for the benefit of the employees and not the Patrol. We note that Graven and Wall were not injured at the social event but while traveling back to the workplace. They were not traveling to perform work for their employer but were attending a social event.”
Graven v. North Carolina Dept. of Public Safety, 2014 WL 3725070 (N.C. App. 2014).