Volunteer Injured in Church Seeks Damages, Claims She is Not Eligible for Comp

A woman who volunteered as a Eucharistic Minister at her church tripped and fell on her way up to the altar to distribute Communion. She was eligible for workers’ compensation because her church’s policy covered volunteers, but she sued the church in a personal injury action. The church wanted the claim dismissed based on the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp, however there was a question of whether she was acting as a volunteer or as a parishioner at the time of the injury.

Kathleen Aprile-Sci tripped on an exposed power cord during a church service on November 20, 2011. She was on her way to the altar to distribute Communion. Her church is within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, a self-insured entity that has a policy which extends workers’ compensation coverage to volunteers. Her church went to the Workers’ Compensation Board, who determined she had a work-related injury and was entitled to benefits. She had been notified that they were filing a claim but she did not participate in the proceedings and denied that she was eligible for comp, though she did not object to their findings.

She and her husband sued the church, St. Raymond of Penyafort R.C. Church, in a personal injury action. She argued that the employer, the church, had filed on her behalf and she never applied for or accepted benefits. The church objected, saying that the WCB had determined she was eligible for workers’ compensation and therefore could not take other actions against them. They asked for a summary judgment to dismiss the complaint which was denied by the New York Supreme Court, they thought there was triable issues of fact about whether she was acting as a volunteer or as a parishioner when she was injured. The church appealed.

The Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division reversed the decision and granted the summary judgment to dismiss her complaint.

Whether a person is an employee or not should be determined in the WCB proceedings, and since they determined she was eligible for comp she was also determined to be an employee even though she had not been the one to file for benefits and she did not accept them. She had been notified of the proceedings and had decided not to participate. She could not decide to waive her workers’ compensation benefits and then attempt a tort claim.

Read the case here.

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