A correctional officer injured during a weightlifting competition at his workplace was recently denied workers’ compensation benefits because he was involved in a “voluntary recreational activity.”
In Case v. Vienna Correctional Center, a correctional officer was participating in a charity weightlifting competition. While attempting to bench-press 485 pounds, Mr. Case suffered a full-thickness tear of the pectoralis major muscle of his right shoulder. The arbitrator awarded Mr. Case benefits, claiming that his participation was within “the personal comfort doctrine.” The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC) reversed this decision and denied benefits, however, ruling that Mr. Case was involved in a “voluntary recreational activity.”
PERSONAL COMFORT DOCTRINE
The personal comfort doctrine is a common law doctrine in Illinois workers’ compensation that an employee may do things at work that are incidental to his employment but are necessary to his health or comfort and receive benefits for any injuries during the same. Mr. Case regularly lifted weights during his lunch hour at work. The arbitrator considered that activity to be related to Mr. Case’s employment since it allowed him to maintain sufficient strength to physically assert control over inmates and defend himself against them.
In reversing the arbitrator’s decision, the IWCC stated that Mr. Case’s participation in the weightlifting competition was a voluntary recreational activity that did not arise out of his employment. Mr. Case testified that he was not ordered to participate, nor did any of his supervisors themselves participate, creating an expectation for him to do so. In fact, by Mr. Case’s own admission, only twelve people took part in the competition, representing less than one percent of the prison’s workforce. According to Section 11 of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, “Accidental injuries incurred while participating in voluntary recreational programs … do not arise out of and in the course of the employment.” The only exceptions to this rule are instances in which “the injured employee was ordered or assigned by his employer to participate in the program,” which Mr. Case testified was not true.
The IWCC also rejected the arbitrator’s argument that the personal comfort doctrine applied in this matter because Mr. Case’s voluntary participation in the weightlifting competition was different from his lifting weights during his lunch hour.