Barton Rodr was a computer programmer for Yzer Inc, DBA Funnel Design Group in Oklahoma. When the yard crew taking care of Yzer's property quit, the company asked for volunteers and Rodr stepped forward. He and his son mowed the lawn and manicured the yard on successive Saturdays, in preparation for the festivities at Automobile Alley, the historic district of downtown Oklahoma City. Barton, a salaried employee, was not paid for the work; his son received $40.
On July 18, 2009, Rodr was putting away the lawn mower when he suffered a heart attack. He was 36 at the time. A workers comp judge awarded him benefits, determining that the injury occurred in the course and scope of employment. A three-judge panel affirmed, but the OK Court of Civil Appeals reversed, opining that Rodr's lawn work bore no relation to his primary job as a programmer.
The OK Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Rodr. Despite his performing volunteer work out of class and on the weekend, he was still an employee of Yzer, as the yard work met the primary test of employment: it furthered the interests of his employer.
In its defense, the company pointed out that the heart attack was caused by a pre-existing conditon: Rodr was overweight, a smoker, with a family history of heart problems. From the perspective of (very distant) consultants, we are tempted to ask: why did the company allow this employee to volunteer? Despite his relatively young age, he worked at a sedentary job and displayed risk factors that precluded his doing physical work. Speaking as a weekend mower, I can certify that the task is strenuous and noisy (less so for my neighbor who sits calmly on his riding mower, listening to music through noise-canceling headphones).
Volunteer vs. Employee
The court has ruled that an employee who volunteers is not a "volunteer." OK law defines a volunteer as "any other person providing or performing voluntary service who receives no wages for the services other than meals, ...therapy...or reimbursement for incidental expenses." An employee is not "any other person."
This is no small matter, for Rodr or for Yzer's workers comp insurer. The unfortunate Rodr is permanently and totally disabled. He is unlikely to work again. He is currently surviving on a mechanical heart and will need a transplant soon. Given Rodr's age and medical expenses of significant magnitude, this claim is likely to reach seven figures.
The lesson for employers is clear: saving a few bucks on physically demanding jobs is not worth the risk. An overweight smoker with a family history of heart problems does not belong within ten feet of a lawnmower. When your lawn crew quits, just go find another one.
Thanks to WorkCompCentral (subscription required) for the heads up on this case.