Is the Pendulum Swinging Towards Limiting the Scope of “Arising Out Of” and “In the Course Of” Employment? Read All About It in the Recent Commission Decision Anderson v. Homewood Flossmoor High School
In Anderson v. Homewood Flossmoor High School, 30 ILWCLB 178 (Ill. W.C. Comm. 2022), the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission concluded that no benefits were owed to the estate where the decedent suffered a cardiac event while running on a treadmill at school.
The decedent, a school athletics director, was required to attend a freshman orientation in the evening of August 7, 2013. At 4:30 p.m. the decedent lifted weights in the school weight room and then told a co-worker he was going for a run on the treadmill. At about 7:15 p.m. the decedent was found unresponsive on the floor at the foot of the treadmill. After unsuccessful efforts to resuscitate, he was pronounced dead with a diagnosis of cardiac arrest.
The Arbitrator denied benefits concluding that the decedent’s death fell under the WCA Section 11 exclusion. Pursuant to the exclusion, accidental injuries incurred while participating in voluntary recreational programs are not compensable even though the employer may have paid some or all of the cost thereof. This exclusion does not apply if the injured employee was ordered or assigned to participate in the program.
Upon review, the Commission affirmed the decision. The Circuit Court reversed, noting Section 11 did not exclude recovery.
On remand, the Commission denied benefits again. This time, however, the Commission ruled that the fatal cardiac event did not arise out of or in the course of the decedent’s employment. In support of the decision, the Commission concluded that the decedent’s employment as an athletic director did not expressly require him to be physically fit. Therefore, the cardiac arrest at the time of working out was not incidental to his employment. The Commission also rejected the argument that the decedent was setting an example for other employees by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Commission noted that the act of running on the treadmill did not serve the purpose of relationship-building or example-setting since the act was performed over summer break. During summer break, there were no students on the grounds. The event occurred in the evening and in an area that was restricted for faculty-use only.
We agree with the Commission’s decision to deny benefits. If a claimant’s job description does not expressly require physical fitness and physical fitness cannot be reasonably inferred from the job duties, the claimant’s injury while exercising (for example, running on a treadmill) is likely not incidental to the employment.
Anderson is a welcome decision for employers. The decision highlights the importance of a detailed investigation after a work injury occurs. The decision also highlights the fact that every case hinges on nuanced facts. For example, the outcome of Anderson may have been different if the exercise was performed during the school year or in a location open to students.
Stating what should seem obvious, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act covers work-related injuries. If you suspect that your employee has not engaged in a work-related activity at the time of injury, and if you need help reaching a decision on compensability of a claim, please reach out to our attorneys here.