Every month I get a publication called the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Law Bulletin. It compiles a list of recent and important decisions about Illinois work comp law. Any lawyer who claims to be focusing on Illinois work injury cases should be getting and reading this. They provide a good insight as to what might happen if you take your case to trial.
One of the recent cases covered the law of horse play. The general law is that if you are goofing around at work and get hurt, then you can’t receive work comp benefits for your injury. I think most reasonable people would agree that makes sense. If my job is to patrol a factory on a golf cart as part of a security detail, but I decide to do donuts with the golf cart, if it flips over I can’t reasonably say that my injury was part of my job. It would be the same if I got hurt in my current job as a lawyer after I challenged the mail delivery guy to an arm wrestling match.
Like most areas of law, horse play can have some gray area where it’s not clear whether or not benefits should be awarded. In a recently highlighted case, a gym teacher at a school was waiting outside the locker room when one of his students ran up the wall and jumped. This is known as the Bo Jackson move as he used to do that when playing baseball.
The gym teacher told the student he could do the same thing and his students challenged him. As fate would have it, when he gave it a go he felt a pop in his ankle which was later diagnosed as a torn Achilles tendon. He filed for benefits and the case was denied.
At trial the teacher testified that he likes to challenge his students and wants to be a physical fitness role model. He also said it’s not unusual for him to participate in activities with school students and it’s not against school rules. This was confirmed by the principal who said this activity could also link up with his goals of building rapport and motivating students although he also said it’s not one he’d recommend.
Quite honestly I would have expected that he’d win his case off this testimony, but he lost. The Arbitrator denied benefits because he found that the activity wasn’t initiated by the employee ( I don’t see how that should matter) and because the teacher who controlled the class curriculum admitted that this wasn’t part of the curriculum (that makes a little more sense). Also, the injury happened the second time he ran up the wall after being challenged by his students to go higher. The Arbitrator felt that this made it horse play and that he was doing this for his own personal reasons rather than for his job.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the teacher admitting that there were less risky ways in which he could have built rapport with the students.
My argument in favor of the teacher would have been that while it’s possible it could have caused an injury, so could playing basketball, football, softball or any other physical education activity. He’s a gym teacher trying to do an athletic move, so it’s reasonable that he did so as he was trying to bond with the students.
I looked up the attorneys who handled this case. The defense firm was one of the top firms out of Chicago. They have approximately 70 lawyers in four different offices, most of whom only focus on work comp. Of course only one of them handled this case, but it would have likely been someone with great experience and resources. The attorney for the injured worker was someone out of Springfield who I had never heard of. As far as I can tell he handles multiple practice areas and I do wonder how much experience he has with this type of case.
I’m not saying that it was a dead bang winner, but when you have a reputable defense firm going up against someone who isn’t as known and might not know the best arguments to make, it doesn’t give you the best chance of winning the case. Again, I don’t know this guy or case well enough to say that happened for certain, but it’s my strong suspicion.
Either way, this hurts future injured workers as this “Bo Jackson case” can be used against someone else who gets injured when they do something that isn’t exactly what their job required. And that is why I rant against lawyers who don’t know what they are doing. They not only hurt their clients, but they also can hurt mine.