The South Australian Employment Tribunal has recently ruled that the family of an Adelaide businessman who suffered a lethal heart attack while exercising in a hotel gym during a work trip to Hangzhou City, China should be eligible to apply for compensation, because the exercise was conducted with “the implied encouragement” of the employer.
The Tribunal heard that on 12 November 2018, Mr Eric Palmbachs (‘Palmbachs’), the Chief Financial Officer executive for Core Lithium Ltd suffered a major heart attack while exercising in a hotel arranged by his employer. Mr Palmbachs, who had developed severe and extensive coronary artery disease over a number of years, suffered a coronary rupture while exercising alone in the hotel’s facilities and was taken to the Hangzhou Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where he was later pronounced dead.
ReturnToWorkSA denied Palmbachs’ family’s request for compensation, arguing that the exercise undertaken by Palmbachs at the time of his death did not constitute part of his employment nor was it undertaken at the request or direction of his employer. The dispute was then referred to the South Australian Employment Tribunal for adjudication.
At the subsequent hearing, Palmbachs’ widow emphased that her husband’s injury arose in the course of his employment and was presumed to be a significant contributing cause. Importantly it was argued that the employer’s encouragement of Palmbachs to engage in exercise could be implied from the fact that he was provided with hotel accommodation that included an on-site gym. Evidence was also adduced which demonstrated that the employer encouraged their employees to stay fit by implementing a “Fitness for Work Policy”, which required minimum standards of fitness for employees.
In response, ReturnToWorkSA argued that the mere engagement of exercise by the deceased worker during an interval of work did not constitute an activity that arose out of the course of employment or was induced or encouraged by the employer.
Having considered the available evidence, His Honour Deputy President Judge Crawley accepted that the mere fact of providing a hotel, complete with gym facilities, was sufficient enough to imply that Mr Palmbachs was induced or encouraged by his employer to use the gym facilities and therefore “to engage in the activities he was performing at the time of his death”.
Judge Crawley also considered whether Palmbachs’ workout constituted a “social” or “sporting activity”, which would be an exemption to the classification of a compensable injury, under the Return to Work Act 2014 (SA) however, ruled that activity was undertaken as “part of the duties required of him in his employment”.
On this basis the South Australian Employment Tribunal overturned the Court’s initial decision to deny compensation to Palmbachs’ family, ruling that the employer’s inducement and encouragement satisfied the criteria of a compensable injury under the Return to Work Act 2014.
To be continued
It is a matter of ‘watch this space’ to see where this case lands and what the implications are for businesses when developing internal policies with a fitness focus. If you require advice on policies, our experienced employment and workplace team are here to help.