I try not to talk overly legal on this blog because it makes my head hurt and certainly doesn’t meet my goal of educating the public on their rights. But every now and then I see a legal memo of document that I think does a good job and I pass it on. Here’s a memo written by a lawyer I know that I think can explain the law in Illinois when you get hurt taking a break from your work day. The good news is that injured workers usually prevail in these situations.

So if the following is too wordy, I apologize. I won’t make it a habit.

Under the personal comfort doctrine, employees who engage in acts related to their personal health and comfort do not leave the course of employment for workers’ compensation purposes. The doctrine encompasses acts such as eating, drinking, obtaining fresh air, seeking relief from heat or cold, showering in an employee locker room, resting, smoking, and using the restroom. The courts consider these incidental acts that take place in the course of employment. Thus, the personal comfort doctrine does not answer the whole question of compensability because it addresses only the “in the course of” requirement for workers’ compensation claims. The petitioner must still meet the “arising out of” requirement independently.

The personal comfort doctrine does not cover employees who engage in conduct so unusual and unreasonable that it cannot be considered an incident of the employment. An injury occurs outside the course of employment if the employee voluntarily and in an unexpected manner exposes himself or herself to a risk outside of a reasonable exercise of his or her duties. The courts, however, may still find an employer liable for injuries resulting from unreasonable and unnecessary risk if the employer possessed knowledge of or acquiesced in a practice or custom.

In Eagle Discount Supermarket v. Industrial Commission, the Illinois Supreme Court found that an employee injured himself in the course of his employment when he fractured his ankle while playing Frisbee in the employer’s parking lot during his unpaid lunch break. On days with nice weather, the employer’s night manager would unlock the store doors to allow employees to eat lunch outside and turn on the parking lot lights to allow employees to play catch with a softball or Frisbee. The court concluded that the employee’s injury occurred in the course of employment because Eagle knew, acquiesced, and possibly participated in the employees’ routine games.

The personal comfort doctrine applies only to employees who sustain injuries while seeking their own personal comfort. The doctrine does not apply to an employee who sustains injures while assisting a co-worker in his or her efforts to seek personal comfort.

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By Michael Helfand