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Employee seriously injured trying to stop horseplay: Did he get workers’ comp?

What if an employee is injured trying to break up what he thought was overly aggressive horseplay? 

We’ve written previously about workers’ comp cases where an employee is injured because of horseplay. But this is somewhat different.

Jamie Benimadho was a volunteer firefighter with the Somerville Borough Fire Department in New Jersey.

One day, Benimadho arrived at the county emergency services training academy for a scheduled test. Other volunteer firefighters were waiting in the parking lot before taking the test.

When he got there, Benimadho saw what he considered a “violent altercation” between two firefighters. According to court documents, Darin Watkins was putting Kenneth Wise into a headlock.

Benimadho approached Watkins and Wise, told Watkins to “stop it,” and pushed Watkins off Wise. Watkins released Wise and placed Benimadho in a headlock.

When Watkins released him, Benimadho stood up then began falling backward. Benimadho fell and struck his head on the pavement. His injuries included a skull fracture, hermorrhage and traumatic brain injury.

Benimadho applied for temporary and medical benefits. A workers’ compensation judge dismissed his claim because he wasn’t injured in the scope of his employment. A New Jersey court recently issued an opinion in an appeal from Benimadho.

Was this personal activity?

When asked why he intervened, Benimadho said he was trying to enforce the fire department’s rule against horseplay.

However, Benimadho also admitted the department never told him to break up fights, that he broke up fights before becoming a firefighter, and that he would break up fights regardless of whether he was a firefighter.

New Jersey’s definition of employment includes this:

“When the employee is required by the employer to be away from the employer’s place of employment, the employee shall be deemed to be in the course of employment when the employee is engaged in the direct performance of duties assigned or directed by the employer.”

The workers’ comp judge had found:

“There is simply nothing to support the assertion that firefighter trainees are required, or directed to intervene in any kind of altercation. This is evident by the fact that neither [Benimadho] nor any other firefighter witness had any such training on how to tackle or intervene in an altercation. To the contrary, there was testimony that the Rules of the Somerset County Emergency Service Training Academy included specific instructions to avoid participating in this kind of activity.”

Benimadho also had said that he hates bullying and would intervene to stop it whether or not he was a firefighter.

The appeals court agreed with the workers’ comp judge. It found there was nothing in the rules for firefighters that “authorized, let alone directed, [Benimadho] to intervene in a physical altercation.” Breaking up the fight was a “personal activity” for Benimadho, not something done in the scope of work.

As a result, his request for workers’ comp benefits was denied.

(Jamie Benimadho v. Somerville Borough Fire Department, Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, No. A-2351-15T3, 4/10/17)

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