“Horseplay” and Workers’ Compensation
Two similar cases show the fine line between work and “horseplay” and the consequences to injured workers of crossing that line. A furniture deliveryman who suffered serious brain injuries won workers’ compensation wage and medical benefits, but a college janitor who broke both ankles did not fare as well and was denied all benefits. Both men were injured in what Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation courts call “horseplay,” wherein workers briefly engage in frivolous behavior at work. However, one worker took the fun too far for the court’s toleration.
After finishing the delivery of furniture to a private home, the deliveryman returned to the moving van with his supervisor. He placed his clipboard in the van and then, on a sudden impulse, ran across the driveway and jumped up to grab the rim of a basketball hoop. Because the hoop was wet from rain, his hands slipped and he fell backward and hit his head on the driveway surface, sustaining serious and permanent head injuries.
The janitor completed a morning of dormitory cleaning at a state college and walked across the campus to eat lunch at a campus-run restaurant. On the way, he impulsively jumped down a flight of 12 stairs, later admitting that he had been thinking for several weeks about whether he could successfully jump down the whole flight of stairs.
Scope of Employment
Initially, both employers denied workers’ compensation coverage to their employees, claiming that the men’s actions were outside of the scope of their employment, rendering the injuries noncompensable. After filing formal claims and appealing, the furniture deliveryman was successful in recovering benefits, but the college janitor was not.
Generally, workers are entitled to wage and medical benefits only for injuries sustained “in the course and scope of employment.” Small, temporary departures from work to administer to personal comforts or convenience do not break the course of employment. Nor do “intervals of leisure” operate to take an employee outside of the course of his or her employment, as long as the intervals remain “inconsequential and innocent.”
Recognizing that all productive employees take short breaks, Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation laws do not strictly scrutinize an employee’s conduct at the precise time of an injury. Instead, where an employee is at the workplace or, when traveling, the employee is substantially engaged in the employer’s business, the employee is deemed to be working. Traveling employees are given more leeway than are employees who work at a stationary work site, because traveling employees need to find food and bathrooms and the nature of their work engages them in varied activities.
As to the furniture deliveryman, the court awarded him wage and medical benefits, finding it significant that the injured man’s supervisor testified that he was not troubled or offended by the man’s brief attention to the basketball hoop. The court also stressed that the deliveryman’s conduct was not reckless or inherently dangerous since basketball is an ordinary pastime.
As to the college janitor, the court denied all benefits for several reasons. First, because the janitor was on a lunch break and completely unrestricted during the break, the court found that his activities were “wholly foreign to his employment.” Additionally, the court noted that “the premeditated, deliberate, extreme, and inherently high-risk nature” of his jumping down an entire flight of stairs was sufficient to remove him from the course and scope of his employment even if he had not been on a lunch break. The court noted that a coworker testified that several weeks before the incident, the janitor had told her that he thought he could jump down the flight of stairs. She testified that she had replied that “the point was not whether he could make the jump, but where he would land.”
Employers are understandably frustrated when an employee receives benefits for an injury incurred on a break or while engaged in horseplay. Conversely, employees expect employers to accept the fact that everyone takes mini-breaks during the workday to refresh and renew concentration and energy. The nature and length of a departure from duties will ultimately make a huge difference in whether an injury is compensable or not.
Employers who want to increase their protection against injury claims from horseplay can issue clear written directives banning horseplay; where such a rule exists and is clearly communicated to employees, it can serve as a defense against horseplay injuries.