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May 18, 2006

Company Outing? Beware the Flying Umbrella!

Company outings should be a time to kick back, relax and enjoy some sun. Well, maybe. Employers need to stay alert to the potential liabilities that linger whenever they host employees at a company-sponsored event. We have blogged the dangers of serving alcohol at company events and the open-ended risks involved in hosting company outings. Now we read of a strange case in New York that may expand company exposures just a little bit further.

The $200G Torpedo
The case involves Phyllis Caliano-Bahaj, who was relaxing on a beach chair at a state park in New York, watching her 8-year-old son and three other children. Suddenly, an approaching storm blew in with 29-mph winds. A beach umbrella flew about 20 feet into the air and slammed into Ms. Caliano-Bahaj's forehead, causing a severe cut and some permanent nerve damage. She sued the state. The state claimed that the umbrella belonged to another beach patron, not the lifeguards employed by the park. A judge said it didn't matter who owned the umbrella. The lifeguards, knowing the storm was coming, should have ordered all umbrellas down. As a result, the state settled the case of what one newspaper is calling "the $200G torpedo."

Where the state was held liable in this situation, it is not difficult to foresee liability for employers under comparable circumstances. You host a picnic at a park. Employees bring their own coolers, beach towels and umbrellas. A wind blows in, wreaks havoc, and someone is hit by a flying umbrella (or a wayward frisbee, or the edge of a kite...). It's no stretch to assume that employers will be held accountable for any injuries. The injuries may or may not fall under workers comp, depending upon whether the event was truly voluntary (no comp coverage) or employees were expected to show up (likely to be compensable).

We are not suggesting that employers forego company sponsored recreation. Team building can be an important part of attracting and retaining good employees. We're all for fun and games. But employers need to keep an eye on the risk exposures every step of the way. One person's fun can be another's torment (see a recent example here). Employers need to remember that any convening of the workforce assumes the employer-employee relationship. Yes, it's fun to have fun and connect as friends, but ultimately, employers retain a level of responsibility that goes beyond the bonds of friendship. So make your summer plans. Have a good time. But remember: being an employer is similar to being a parent. Your responsibilities never really end.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 11:05 AM Link to, Comment (2), or E-mail this post

Great advice from Jon. I agree that Employers must make a "business decision" as to whether they sponsor social/recreational events, in the name of good employee relations or as a "reward".
In Pennsylvania, those factors would be enough to consider the event sufficently "work-related" for work comp coverage purposes. There are benefits to social functions, however, the employer must be aware of the potential liability. Also insurers should inquire as to the past practices of the employer re these events, in order to properly assess liability/coverage/premium issues.

Posted by: Michael D. Sherman at May 19, 2006 3:05 PM

Does anyone have a cite for this "flying umbrella" case?

Posted by: Jeffrey M. Thiel at May 24, 2006 11:32 AM
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