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Good Samaritan Receives Benefits for Assisting with Personal Comfort

By John Kamin

In a recent appellate court decision, a court awarded benefits to an employee, concluding that he was acting as a Good Samaritan in assisting another employee seeking personal comfort. Both the Good Samaritan Doctrine and the Personal Comfort Doctrine are sometimes misinterpreted. The Good Samaritan Doctrine provides that an employee will be found to remain in the course of his employment if he is assisting someone while in the course of his employment and is acting in a reasonable and foreseeable manner. The Personal Comfort Doctrine addresses an employee’s activities which are purely for his or her personal comfort at work but are so closely incidental to work that injuries occurring as a result therefrom are deemed compensable.

Both doctrines were addressed in Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Com’n, — Ill.App.3d —, 909 N.E.2d 983 (2d Dist. 2009). In Circuit City, an employee was on break and purchased an item from a vending machine in the employer’s break room. The item became lodged in the dispenser and the employee attempted to shake the item from the machine to no avail. She then asked the claimant for his assistance. Claimant then hurled himself into the machine with his right shoulder and hip, injuring himself. The claimant was not on break at the time. The Commission awarded benefits. The circuit court reversed, finding that the Personal Comfort Doctrine did not apply to this circumstance as claimant was not on break and had not attempted to purchase the item. Upon on appeal to the appellate court, the Industrial Commission’s award was reinstated. The appellate court reasoned that the injury arose out of the employment as the employer had provided the defective vending machine for its employees’ use. Further, the court found that the claimant was in the course of his employment, not because he was seeking personal comfort, but instead he was acting as a Good Samaritan. The court concluded that when the claimant left his work duties to render aid to a third party, he remained in the course of his employment as long as his departure was reasonably foreseeable. The employee had testified that there were prior problems with the machine and the court concluded that butting up against the machine after unsuccessfully shaking same was not necessarily an unreasonable act.

Obviously, it is difficult to understand what benefit the employer received by claimant’s acts. This case should not be read to support the conclusion that all injuries sustained while a worker is seeking personal comfort or acting as a Good Samaritan are deemed compensable. Exceptions do apply. Even if an employee is seeking personal comfort such as eating, drinking, resting or smoking, workers must establish that they remained in the course of the employment and that the injury arose out of the employment. With regard to “in the course,” an employee who is injured while on lunch break while on an employer’s premises is generally deemed to have been “in the course.” However, if the employee is not paid for lunch break and leaves the employer’s premises and is injured off-site, this is generally not in the course of the employment. Further, if an employee is engaged in an unreasonable act, he will be deemed to have stepped outside of the course of employment. For example, an employee was denied benefits when injured while attempting to heat a pot pie in a large industrial oven. But, if the employer acquiesces to the activity, the worker may be deemed in the course of his employment. For example, if an employer has knowledge that employees engage in recreational activities on the employer’s premises during lunch break (i.e., playing Frisbee, basketball or other sports), injuries arising therefrom may be considered compensable. Finally, activities that are for purely personal benefit but do not involve personal comfort do not necessarily arise out of and in the course of the employment. For example, an employee has been denied benefits when working on his personal vehicle at the employer’s service garage and sustaining injury as a result of a defect in the vehicle and not the condition of the employer’s premises.

Claims of this nature must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The test is what is a reasonable act for the employee and whether that act would be foreseeable to the employer. When investigating and evaluating a claim which may involve either the Personal Comfort Doctrine or Good Samaritan Doctrine, it is important to confirm with the employer any prior knowledge or acquiescence to the activity engaged in, prior instances where such an activity may have taken place, and whether any prohibition or other communication occurred concerning the activity in question.

 

Originally published in the Fall 2009 edition of Quinn Quarterly.