When Sports Go Bad

Extreme teambuilding activities can backfire. Here's how to stay safe

Blame X Games: Extreme sports have entered the corporate world. As resorts cater to the desire of planners to both nurture camaraderie among staff and make meetings more interesting and fun, they now offer a wide variety of games, sports, and other teambuilding activities that attempt to improve collaboration and morale among workers. While physical games and sports may be fun, they can also carry the potential for considerable legal risk. Do you know how to protect your organization?

Teambuilding events can be quite benign, but increasingly, resorts are offering organizations a chance to let employees take it to the next level and participate in very physical activities, such as rappelling, obstacle courses, or whitewater rafting. Some of these activities can lead to serious physical injury, even when supervised by professionals. 

Does Workers Comp Apply?
If an employee is badly injured during one of these contests, the employee may try to sue the employer for negligence in selecting the teambuilding company or negligently supervising the activity. 

While most on-the-job injuries are covered under workers' compensation laws where insurance takes care of the injury, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether injuries that occur at off-site company activities are sufficiently "work-related" to be covered by such insurance. State courts have been inconsistent in their rulings, with some finding that workers compensation does not apply and that an employee therefore may sue the employer directly.   

Reducing the Risk
Every organization needs to have as its first line of defense a good general liability insurance policy that will protect the organization from liability for most types of personal injury to employees and others due to simple negligence. But have the policy reviewed carefully by a lawyer or insurance professional, because there are always exceptions and exclusions buried in the fine print.

If attendees will be asked to do anything physically demanding or that carries some meaningful risk of injury, be sure to make the activity completely voluntary and also require employees to sign a liability waiver. A waiver is never airtight, but it provides strong evidence that the worker understood the risks, understood that the activity was voluntary, and claimed to have the necessary level of physical fitness.

Mixing alcohol with strong physical exertion also raises the risk of injury and liability significantly, so prohibit alcohol consumption immediately before or during strenuous activities.

Finally, carefully investigate the resort that is offering the sports and teambuilding activities, as well as any outside contractors used by the resort to conduct such events. Make sure the resort and the contractor both have a good safety record, are well qualified, and carry sufficient liability insurance of their own.   

Employees seldom appreciate "forced fun" that is beyond their comfort level, and they appreciate sustaining serious injury even less. So when in doubt, leave out the rappelling. 

Ben Tesdahl, Esq. is an attorney concentrating in nonprofit, corporate, and contract law, including meeting and convention law. He is with the law firm of Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, P.C. in Washington, DC. Tesdahl can be reached at (202) 466-6550 or at [email protected]