Fire Chief’s Injuries In Fitness Program Not Covered By Workers’ Comp

William Darin is the 56-year-old Fire Chief for the City of East Peoria, Illinois, a position he has held since 2009. Darin filed a workers’ compensation claim, alleging that he suffered work-related injuries to his knees on two separate occasions in September of 2010 while exercising during the “Fall Fitness Challenge,” a physical fitness program which the City offered to its employees free of charge. Darin had enrolled in the Fall Fitness Challenge because his supervisor had previously told him to stay fit and to set an example for the firefighters under his command by participating in a fitness program.

When the City offered Darin the job as fire chief, it did not insist on any physical fitness requirements or yearly physical examinations. However, the fire chief’s job description required Darin to respond to major alarms, natural disasters, and other emergencies. The position description listed the physical demands of Darin’s position as including, among other things: (1) exerting in excess of 100 pounds of force occasionally, or in excess of 50 pounds frequently, or in excess of 20 pounds of force constantly to move objects; (2) ascending or descending ladders, stairs, scaffolding, ramps, poles and the like using feet and legs and hands and arms; (3) moving about on hands and knees or hands and feet; (4) having the ability to work for sustained periods of exposure to outside atmospheric conditions; and (5) being exposed to conditions such as fumes, noxious odors, dust, mists, gases, and poor ventilation that affect the respiratory system, eyes, or the skin.

The City rejected Darin’s workers’ compensation claim, taking the position that Darin was injured while participating in a “voluntary recreational activity.” Darin countered, arguing that his participation in the Fall Fitness Challenge was neither “recreational” nor “voluntary.”

A divided Illinois Court of Appeals sided with the City and dismissed Darin’s workers’ compensation claims. The majority of the Court held: “We find the Fall Fitness Challenge was a ‘recreational program’ for which the workers’ compensation law bars compensation. Evidence showed the program was a 12–week fitness and weight management competition that promoted teamwork and healthy lifestyle changes. Program participants exercised with a personal trainer and Darin’s personal trainer developed an exercise program for him. Darin described the fitness activities he performed while engaging in the program as stretching, jogging, using a medicine ball and an elliptical machine, box jumps, squats, and weight lifting. Darin’s exercise activities fall within the definition of the term ‘athletics’ and the Act expressly includes ‘athletic events’ as an example of a ‘recreational activity’ for which compensation is precluded.

“Further, we find that a physical exercise program performed for health and fitness purposes falls within the definition of ‘recreation’ more generally, in that it may be engaged in for the purpose of ‘refreshment of the strength and spirits after toil,’ ‘diversion,’ or ‘play.’ In this instance, Darin engaged in the Fall Fitness Challenge and identified personal goals he wished to accomplish, including losing weight, getting in better shape, and reducing inches from his waist.

“We also find that Darin’s participation in the Fall Fitness Challenge was voluntary. While Darin was encouraged to stay fit and set an example for others within the fire department, he acknowledged that the employer did not put any restrictions on his exercise activities. Further, no one ordered Darin to participate in the Fall Fitness Challenge. Although Darin was encouraged to maintain physical fitness, the manner and method in which he chose to do so was at his discretion. There were many options available to Darin to stay fit and serve as an example to those under his command.”

Two dissenting judges argued that “Darin’s enrollment in the Fall Fitness program was not purely voluntary. Darin’s supervisor stated that he considered it ‘part of Darin’s job duties’ to participate in a fitness program, and that if Darin had refused to participate in fitness initiatives, it would have negatively affected his view of the Darin’s job performance. Thus, the manifest weight of the evidence establishes that Darin enrolled in the Fall Fitness program in an effort to perform a job duty that supervisor had expressly directed him to perform.”

Darin v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2015 IL App (3d) 140536WC-U (Ill. App. 2015).