Workers’ Compensation: Traveling Employee’s Death Is Compensable

Industrial Commission properly determined that the “traveling employee” doctrine applied to the claim filed after decedent suffered fatal injuries while riding an all-terrain vehicle at a Wisconsin lodge owned by a major supplier of the decedent’s employer, since the record showed that the decedent was participating in an annual company trip to the supplier’s paper mill, five of decedent’ s colleagues testified that the trip was for business purposes and there was nothing to suggest that decedent’s conduct in riding the ATV was unreasonable.

Section 11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act precludes and employee from recovering for accidental injuries incurred while participating in voluntary recreational activities, unless the employee was ordered or assigned to participate in the activity. Illinois courts, however, have also long adhered to the “traveling employee” doctrine, which allows an employee to recover for injuries suffered during reasonable and expected activity while traveling away from home, even if that activity was recreational in nature.

In this case, the employer contends that unless a traveling employee is assigned or ordered to participate in the recreational activities from which the injury arose, section 11 precludes recovery. In effect, the employer argues that section 11 abrogates the traveling employee doctrine with respect to recreational activities.

Shirley Bolda, the widow of Richard Bolda (decedent), filed an application for adjustment of claim under the act, seeking compensation for decedent’s death. Decedent was a plant manager for Bagcraft Corp., a company that produces paper bags and other flexible packaging supplies. On Sept. 20, 1990, the day of decedent’s death, he was 55 years old and had worked for Bagcraft for 12 years.

Rhinelander Paper Co., is a subsidiary of Wausau Paper Co. and was on of Bagcraft’s major s suppliers of paper. For at least three years prior to September 1990, Rhinelander had invited Bagcraft to send a group of its employees to visit its paper mill and to stay overnight at its company lodge in Wisconsin.

Although Marshall Rodin, the former president of Bagcraft, testified that the trips to Rhinelander had no real business importance, the testimony of decedent’s colleagues as well as memos that were distributed prior to the trip reveal that the trip was for business purposes and that decedent was recommended to go on the trip partly because he was familiar with Rhinelander’s product and could contribute to the meetings.

Rhinelander gave the Bagcraft employees a tour of the mill. After the tour, the parties met and discussed general business and quality issues, including baggy sheets of paper and pin holes in the paper. When the meetings concluded around 2:30 p.m., Rhinelander drove the Bagcraft employees to Wausau’s lodge, where they spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening.

At the lodge, Bagcraft employees and a couple of Rhinelander’s sales people participated in a wide range of recreational activities together, including trapshooting, riding all-terrain vehicles, fishing, walking and hiking. The Bagcraft employees were also free to simply sit around or play pool at the lodge. These activities were available in preceding years and were described in a folder of information that Rhinelander gave the Bagcraft employees before reaching the lodge.

Decedent and James Allen, a co-worker, decided to go for an ATV ride. While riding back to the lodge, decedent unexpectedly flew over the handle bars of the ATV and struck a tree. He suffered a severe head injury and died shortly after reaching the hospital.

The arbitrator found that decedent’s fatal injuries arose out of and in the course of his employment. Specifically, the arbitrator found that decedent was a traveling employee and that riding an ATV was a reasonable and foreseeable recreational activity under the circumstances. The commission affirmed and awarded claimant burial costs and death benefits. The circuit court confirmed the commission’s decision.

On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court, in an opinion written by Justice Thomas R. Rakowski, without dissent, ruled as follows:

“Given that the traveling employee doctrine applies to the instant case, the proper test for determining whether decedent’s death arose out and in the course of his employment is whether his conduct was reasonable and anticipated by Bagcraft. As to the ‘reasonableness’ prong, all the record indicates is that, while returning to the lodge, decedent flew over his handle bars and struck a tree. There is nothing to suggest that decedent’s conduct was unreasonable at the time of the accident; nor can we say that riding an ATV is unreasonable per se.

“As to the ‘anticipated’ prong, the evidence shows that Bagcraft knew or should have known that ATV riding was among the recreational options at the Rhinelander lodge. Not only did Bagcraft employees ride the ATVs on previous trips, but Rhinelander distributed information packets on each trip describing the recreational activities available at the lodge.