The South Dakota Supreme Court awarded workers’ compensation benefits this summer to an employee who injured himself while running away from a co-worker he had just pranked.
While waiting for a delivery, a hot and bored concrete laborer coaxed his co-worker out of an air-conditioned truck so he could enjoy it himself. After cooling down in the truck and seeing the agitated co-worker, he impulsively ran away, tried jumping across a trench, landed awkwardly, and broke his ankle. He sought workers’ compensation benefits for the injury.
For him to recover benefits under South Dakota’s workers’ compensation laws, his injury had to (1) arise out of and (2) be within the course of his employment. In Petrik v. JJ Concrete, the court found that this act of horseplay not only arose out of his employment, but did not substantially deviate from his job duties and therefore occurred in the course of employment.
When does horseplay arise out of employment?
To arise out of employment, the job must somehow contribute to the injury. Mr. Petrik was injured while waiting for the next concrete truck to arrive. The South Dakota Supreme Court recognized that “playing a prank on a co-worker during an idle period is [an activity] in which employees might reasonably engage.” The court therefore agreed that the injury arose out of the employment.
When is horseplay within the course of employment?
The South Dakota Supreme Court considered four factors to answer the close question of whether this particular act of horseplay was a “substantial deviation” from the job duties. The court ultimately decided it was not, and therefore was within the course of employment.
- Was the horseplay a serious deviation from job duties? The court decided that the momentary and impulsive decision to run from a co-worker was not a serious deviation, particularly because the horseplay happened during a lull in work.
- Was the horseplay a complete deviation from job duties? Although the worker engaged in prohibited horseplay, this happened while waiting for a concrete delivery, so the employee did not abandon his job duties.
- Was the horseplay an accepted part of the job? The third factor seemed to cut against awarding benefits, but was outweighed by the other factors. The employer did not tolerate horseplay. Running on the job site was against the rules, and each employee had received a manual with the safety policy. Minor jokes and pranks were known to happen, but these were not a regular occurrence.
- Was the horseplay an expected part of the job? The court did not buy the employer’s argument that because concrete work is difficult and repetitive, workers should be expected to sit still and do nothing during downtime. When employees are regularly on standby, they will likely engage in some kind of activity, which might include joking, goofing around, and horseplay.
Although the South Dakota Supreme Court agreed that running on the job site was dangerous, misguided, and against the rules, in this particular case it was not deliberate or conscious, and the employee did not abandon his job duties, so it was within the course of the employment.
“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
So what lessons can the South Dakota Supreme Court’s decision to award benefits teach us?
First, this case tells us that employees who are injured while breaking rules can still receive benefits in certain situations. The supreme courts of Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota have all recognized similar rules.
Second, this case illustrates the reverence given to workers’ compensation as the only remedy available to most employees for on-the-job injuries. Workers’ compensation laws protect employers from tort liability in exchange for giving injured employees an efficient no-fault remedy.
Finally, this case serves as an important reminder that keeping employees safe and busy can sometimes be the same thing.
Build it right. Keep it real.
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