James Crowley, Esq.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a teacher injured while chaperoning students on a school sponsored ski trip was eligible to receive workers' compensation. The decision is Karen Sikorski's Case, 455 Mass. 477 (2009).

Karen Sikorski, a Peabody High School mathematics teacher, had been employed at the school since 1996. She was an avid skier who from the date of her employment regularly volunteered as a chaperone on the ski club's trips. The ski club was an officially sanctioned activity of the Peabody School Committee. One teacher at the high school received a stipend to serve as the ski club's adviser but the school provided no other financial assistance. Ski club expenses were paid from fund raisers and student fees. Every year the ski club held four day-long ski trips and one overnight ski trip. Chaperones were needed on these trips to supervise the students on the bus, in the lodge and on the slopes. The school administration encouraged teachers to become involved. Although teachers received no salary for these trips, their expenses were paid by the ski club.

In January 2004 there was a weekend ski trip to Mount Ascutney in Vermont. While skiing with the students, Karen Sikorski fell and injured her shoulder. Her injury required two surgeries and physical therapy. Part of her medical cost was paid by her own insurance carrier. She also used sick days to recuperate. She filed a claim for medical benefits under the workers' compensation law which the City of Peabody as a self-insurer denied. The City, however, claimed her injury was not compensable since it occurred during her voluntary participation in a recreational activity.

Sikorski appealed to the Department of Industrial Accidents. Two administrative judges there upheld the denial of benefits. She then appealed to the Industrial Accident Review Board which overturned the decision and awarded benefits. The City then appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case to its own docket. At issue was whether Sikorski's injury was work related thereby qualifying her for benefits. The workers' compensation law found in M.G.L. Ch. 152 was enacted in 1911 to compensate for injuries arising out of and in the course of employment. Courts in Massachusetts have traditionally applied a five factor test to determine whether an injury arising during organized recreational activity is compensable. The five criteria are: (1) the customary nature of the activity; (2) the employer's encouragement or subsidizing of the activity; (3) the extent to which the employer managed or directed the recreational activity; (4) the presence of substantial pressure or compulsion upon the employee to attend and participate; and (5) the employer's expected or actual benefit from the employee's participation.

The Legislature amended the law in 1985 by providing in M.G.L. Ch. 152 §1 (7A) that personal injury "shall not include any injury resulting from an employee's purely voluntary participation in any recreational activity, including but not limited to athletic events, parties and picnics, even though the employer pays some or all of the cost thereof." The statutory amendment led to denial of benefits in three well publicized cases where employees claimed work related injuries had occurred (1) at a company sponsored softball game (Laurence W. Bengtson's Case, 34 Mass. App. 239 (1993)), (2) on an upper level of a garage when the employee while awaiting his paycheck engaged in a game of catch and slipped on ice (Joseph Gateley's Case, 415 Mass. 397 (1993), and (3) on a ski trail when an event planner, after completing her tasks at the lodge, and while engaged in recreational skiing with a friend who accompanied her on trip, fell and experienced a severe leg injury (Linda Hammond's Case, 62 Mass. App. 684 (2004).

In the case at hand, the City relied on the 1985 statutory amendment to argue Sikorski was barred from receiving workers' compensation benefits since her injury resulted from voluntary participation in the recreational activity of skiing. The Supreme Judicial Court did not agree with the City. In the Court's view, the traditional five factor test on recreational activity was still authoritative, notwithstanding the 1985 amendment to M.G.L. Ch. 152. Presently, according to the Court, an injury is compensable if it arises in the course of employment and does not result from voluntary recreational activity. The Court then applied these factors and reached three conclusions. First, the Court found that it was customary for teachers at the high school to act as chaperones. In the Court's view, teachers exercised virtually the same supervisory responsibility for the students on these ski trips as they did in the school building. Evidence also disclosed that teachers were required to be present on the ski slopes to monitor the students. In fact, while in the course of overseeing the students, Karen Sikorski fell and injured her shoulder. According to the Court, Sikorski's situation was totally different from that presented in the other reported court decision involving a skier. In Linda Hammond's Case, the employee was not required to ski and her injury arose when she engaged in recreational skiing with a friend. Second, the Court found that Peabody High School officials encouraged teachers to participate as ski club chaperones. There was testimony that the school principal and the ski club adviser requested teachers to "join in" and chaperone students on the ski trips. Third, the ski trips furthered the school's educational mission. According to the Court, extracurricular activities were viewed by the school administration as serving an important function. Consequently, the Court believed the City benefited from a teacher's service as a chaperone.

In light of these five factors, the Court ruled that Sikorski's recreational activity was work that was related to her employment. Sikorski's responsibilities as a chaperone were perceived by the Court as an extension of her duties as a teacher. The Court also held that the Legislature in enacting the 1985 statutory amendment never intended to deny workers' compensation coverage to teachers who acted as chaperones. For these reasons, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld workers' compensation benefits for the teacher.