You don't have to watch the TV series "The Office" to know about very odd things that can happen in the workplace. Perhaps you've seen employees arm-wrestle each other at work. Maybe you've chased a stapler-thieving co-worker down the hall. If so, you have entered the grand domain of "horseplay" and that one word alone is enough to jeopardize workers' compensation coverage.
Most people believe that any kind of injury that happens while at work is covered by workers' compensation. While that often is true, there are dozens of exceptions. A heart attack on the job may not qualify for comp benefits, and an unexplained fall may not qualify. Horseplay also is a widely recognized defense to a workers' compensation claim.
The courts generally recognize horseplay as a deviation from work. If they find that the play is totally without a work-related purpose or sanction and it has not ceased, then resulting injuries are not compensable. Some examples:
Arm-wrestling: In Kentucky, a jailer suffered a broken arm in one of many arm-wrestling contests that occurred there. The county jailer did have a policy requiring employees to be physically fit and did allow them to work out. However, the courts ruled there was no coverage because the county jailer had never consented to the arm-wrestling nor turned a blind-eye to it. Had the county jailer known about the arm-wrestling and permitted it to continue, the outcome likely would have been different.
Chasing the office thief: In Tennessee, an office worker tripped after chasing a co-worker who had taken his stapler. There was no coverage because chasing the co-worker went beyond the scope of anything that was expected on the job - there were other means available to recover the stapler.
Tough guys square off: In Kentucky, two warehouse workers were arguing about who was tougher and even playfully punched each other. One was driving a forklift, and the other was standing beside it. The forklift operator told the other one he was done arguing and to back off. The forklift driver then ran over the other co-worker's foot. This was compensable, even though the co-worker did not back away from the forklift. The forklift driver had declared the argument over, and also had a duty to operate the forklift safely when others were around.
As can been seen, incidents of horseplay can be a close call. The most important lesson is to take statements as soon as possible after the incident, take scene photos if necessary, and consult your carrier our counsel about whether the horseplay defense might apply.