Comp Clues



By HR Blunders Newsletter
| Date: 09/01/2008

Time to play the popular HR Blunders game, “Comp or No Comp.” Here are three recent court cases in which employees sought comp for unusual accidents. Did the workers get comp? Read each case, then check to see whether you guessed right at the end of this post.

1. Does the company pay workers’ comp if an employee, returning from an unpaid break, injures his foot while rocking a vending machine to shake loose a stuck candy bar?

Here’s what happened in this case from Oregon: Maintenance worker Kaleiokalani Barela injured his foot at work. While returning from an unpaid lunch break, he tried to help a co-worker dislodge a purchased candy bar from a vending machine in the company’s lunchroom.

Barela attempted to rock the machine when he heard a sound from below.

It wasn’t the sound of the candy bar dropping in the machine. It was Barela’s Achilles tendon rupturing.

Barela sought workers’ comp. His duties did not include maintaining the candy machine, which was done by an outside contractor. Did Barela’s employer have to pay?

2. In another case, a car salesman, Clifton Roberts, was bored one day so he decided to take a ride on a co-worker’s motorcycle in his employer’s lot.

The salesman didn’t have any current customers. He took the little spin on the motorcycle while waiting for the next customer to arrive. Other employees, including the car dealer’s general manager, took rides on the bike earlier in the day.

While the salesman was riding the cycle, another employee backed a company pickup truck into him, causing the salesman serious injuries. Comp or no comp?

3. In another case, one of Hr Blunders’ favorites in the world of workers’ comp, a worker, Dwight Nichols, broke a tooth while chewing on a candy at work.

The candy was provided for employees by the company. In fact, Nichols was the employee who was often in charge with picking up the candy and making sure it was available to employees while they were working. (And if you’re interested, the snack was a Hot Tamale, a chewy, cinnamon candy.)

The worker was on duty when he broke a filling and cracked his tooth. Is dental work compensable under workers’ comp in this situation?


1. The Workers’ Comp Board ruled Barela’s foot injury was compensable because he wans’t participating in a recreational or social activity. But his employer’s insurance company, Washington Group International, appealed.

The Court of Appeals of Oregon reversed the comp board’s decision and sent the case back for further consideration.

So, while the employer and insurance company have won this battle, the employee may yet win the war by somehow proving his injury is compensable.

2. Roberts didn’t get comp.

Why? The court said the injury happened while the salesman was engaging in a recreational or social activity primariliy for his own personal pleasure.

It said since there was no work-related reason for riding the motorcycle, the salesman wouldn’t collect comp.

3. In the case of Nichols, the candy-chewer, the employer rejected the claim on the grounds the injury happened due to an activity that was recreational or social.

But the Workers’ Comp Board, and later, a state court, approved the claim! Both said the injury arose out of and in the course of employment.

The comp board said in this case, eating candy was never touted as being recreational or social. It viewed chewing the Hot Tamale as being an ordinary part of an average work day such as taking a drink of water or sitting at a desk.

What’s the take-home from all this? HRB wishes there was a definitive formula or test to tell HR pros whether it’s worth it to contest questionable workers’ comp claims. As these cases show, it’s not black and white at all; it’s just about as gray as you can get. And to make matters worse, these rulings also vary from state to state.

Here’s one question to ask those making the decision about whether to contest: Will it be worth it to spend the money on legal, administrative and other resources to fight the claim?