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Sometimes activities that would otherwise be non-compensable are covered under the Mutual Benefit Doctrine. That doctrine covers certain activities when there is “a clear and substantial benefit” to the employer by reason of the permitted activity. Daus v. Marble, 270 N.J. Super. 241 (App. Div. 1994). An example might be an injury to an employee when one employee spills hot coffee on another employee during an impromptu on-premises coffee break. Employees who gather around the coffee machine during work hours to exchange personal news or to joke around are not technically working, but this sort of coffee break provides a mutual benefit to both the employer and the employee. Therefore an incident involving a coffee burn to an employee would be covered.
An older case Saintsing v. Steinbach Company, 1 N.J. Super. 259 (App. Div. 1949) illustrates the point. In that case the personnel director proposed to the store manager a vaccination service for employees to guard against a smallpox epidemic which had begun in New York City. A notice was delivered to all employees stating, “On April 22, 1947, we will provide free inoculation to all those who choose to be immunized against smallpox. We are sure that everyone is aware of the current spread of smallpox and we strongly urge that you take advantage of this service, which we are glad to provide in the interest of your health.”
Most employees were vaccinated but petitioner, Mary Saintsing, developed a bad reaction which caused temporary and permanent disability. She brought a workers’ compensation claim. The carrier denied the claim and argued that this program was voluntary. Not everyone agreed to be inoculated. The personnel director testified on behalf of the injured employee that the company wanted to avoid absenteeism because that would disrupt its business. The court reviewed conflicting decisions in other states and held, “The employees, although not compelled, were strongly urged to submit to the vaccination and, in natural response, most of them did. . . . We have concluded that the activity was mutually beneficial, that the risk was reasonably incident to the employment and that the petitioner’s injury resulted from an untoward event or accident arising out of and in the course of her employment. . . “
New Jersey later amended its statute in 1979 to make clear that recreational and health activities whose intended purpose is to promote health and morale (and not something more than health and morale) are not compensable. But that provision of the statute in N.J.S.A. 34:15-7 did not invalidate the Mutual Benefit Doctrine. If the employer derives some benefit beyond mere health and morale, the social or recreational activity is compensable.
So for example in High v. Rose, 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2026 (App. Div. July 26, 2011), the Court affirmed a decision of a Judge of Compensation finding that an accident in a parking lot long after school ended was compensable based on a mutual benefit. The plaintiff, High, was employed at Montclair Kimberley Academy as a nurse. She remained late at school to assist another teacher for an hour and a half. The defendant, Rose, remained late at school after teaching her class and then completing her instructional work. Then at 4:15 she picked up her son who attended the school’s pre-kindergarten after-school care program. Both employees of the Academy backed their cars out at the same time and their cars struck each other, causing injuries to plaintiff High.
The plaintiff argued that Rose was not in the course of her employment because she stayed after school primarily to pick up her child from the pre-kindergarten program. The plaintiff clearly wanted to proceed in a civil suit against Rose, but the carrier for Rose argued that the plaintiff’s only remedy was workers’ compensation. The Judge of Compensation held that just because Rose stayed late to pick up her child from the pre-kindergarten program did not remove her from employment. Having the child in the program at the school provided a mutual benefit to the school and the employee. Since High and Rose were still on school premises when the accident happened, the Judge of Compensation found the accident to be compensable. The Appellate Division agreed and barred High’s civil suit against Rose. The Court noted, “The child was attending the after-school program so that defendant could complete her teaching duties.”
The Mutual Benefit Doctrine, like its close cousin, the Comfort Doctrine, is not written into the New Jersey statute. These doctrines exist in case law handed down over the years. Without these doctrines many claims would be found non-compensable. For example, employees need to use the restrooms during the day. If a slip and fall occurs in a restroom, it might not be covered without the Personal Comfort Doctrine because technically the employee is not working. These doctrines make sense because they avoid a hyper-technical look at every activity which employees engage in during the course of a day. The Personal Comfort Doctrine embraces activities that are basic human needs, and the Mutual Benefit Doctrine embraces activities that benefit the employer and employee equally. However, the Mutual Benefit Doctrine has its statutory boundaries as noted above under Section 7 such that an activity whose purpose is just to improve health and morale is not compensable.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.