Most American employees are aware that the workers’ compensation can help them recover after a work-related injury or illness, but what happens when employees cause harm to themselves due to recklessness or carelessness? If a worker suffers an injury due to worksite horseplay, then his or her deviation from job duties will likely influence a subsequent workers’ compensation claim.
In the event that workers’ compensation benefits do not fully cover the cost of a workplace injury, the employee may have grounds for a personal injury lawsuit against his or her employer if a known safety issue caused the injury. However, if the employee bears any responsibility for the injury, his or her negligence may influence a workers’ compensation claim and a personal injury lawsuit in different ways.
When Does Horseplay Disqualify a Workers’ Compensation Claim?
The determining factor in most workers’ compensation claims is whether the claimant suffered an injury during the course of performing work-related duties. If a worker suffers an injury due to horseplay, this may seem to indicate a clear deviation from the worker’s job duties. However, most courts acknowledge that some types of work inherently lead to waiting or idle time, and it can be reasonable to expect some level of horseplay from employees who have no current duties to perform.
A workers’ compensation review board will likely use a four-step system to determine whether horseplay should disqualify a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. First, the seriousness and duration of the horseplay is a major factor. Engaging in objectively dangerous behavior or deviating well outside the scope of the employee’s job duties may disqualify a claim. Next, it’s important to determine if the employee engaged in horseplay during work or if the employee completely abandoned his or her work to engage in horseplay. For example, a delivery crew must frequently wait for periods up to an hour between jobs. If they engage in horseplay during these times, they technically have no immediate job duties to abandon.
The workers’ compensation board or judge reviewing a claim will also assess whether horseplay was an accepted part of the job. Following the previous example, the delivery crew may play innocent pranks on one another during their wait time between deliveries, and the investigation may include testimony from other employees who report that pranks and horseplay were common during these lulls in activity. The final determining factor is if the nature of the employment could reasonably lead to horseplay. If wait time is common, then whoever reviews the claim could assume that some horseplay is a reasonable expectation.
Legal Options Beyond Workers’ Compensation
If an injured worker faces a denial of benefits from the workers’ compensation board, he or she may try to appeal the decision to a higher court. This can lead to additional legal expense but may also work in the injured employee’s favor. If the employee’s injuries could have resulted from any type of employer negligence, this will strengthen the employee’s workers’ compensation claim. Even though the employee may have engaged in horseplay, the employer still had an obligation to ensure the worksite was reasonably safe.
A plaintiff who decides to pursue a personal injury claim against a negligent employer after suffering a horseplay-related injury should expect to bear some liability for the damages. In states that follow comparative negligence laws, a plaintiff will lose a portion of his or her recovery equal to his or her degree of fault for the damages. If a judge determines an employee is 40% at fault due to his or her horseplay, the employee would lose 40% of the case award but still qualify for recovery. However, in states that follow contributory negligence laws like Alabama, any plaintiff negligence completely bars recovery.