It started as innocent horseplay: Employees threw ice cubes at a co-worker. But the horseplay ended with an injury. Does the employee get workers’ comp benefits since he was injured at work?
Matthew Simms was a server at a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Manassas, VA. During a work shift, he walked into the kitchen to enter an order.
Three other employees in the kitchen at the time threw ice at him. The employees were Simms’ friends.
After some ice hit him in the back of the head, he turned around and felt a pain in his shoulder.
Then as he lifted his left arm to block some thrown ice, he felt his shoulder dislocate.
Simms went to a hospital for treatment. He wasn’t able to work for four days after the incident.
He also claims the injury required him to seek additional medical treatment, including surgery, which resulted in another period when he wasn’t able to work.
Simms applied for workers’ comp benefits.
Interpreting the horseplay doctrine
A deputy commissioner of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission awarded Simms four days of temporary total disability benefits. The commissioner said the injury arose out of and in the course of his employment.
However, Simms had previously dislocated his shoulder several times, unrelated to his employment. For that reason, the commissioner said Simms’ surgery and the period that followed when he wasn’t able to work weren’t related to work.
Simms and Ruby Tuesday both appealed to the full Commission.
The Commission reversed the original ruling, saying Simms’ injury didn’t arise out of his employment even though he was the innocent victim of horseplay by co-workers.
A state appeals court agreed with the Commission, and then the case went to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The supreme court noted that the appeals court had relied upon an earlier case to make its decision. In that case, an employee was assaulted at work, a key difference according to the supreme court.
The court said if an assault is toward a person and not directed against him as an employee or because of his employment, the resulting injury doesn’t arise out of employment.
On the other hand, the court noted that there is a history in many states of accepting innocent horseplay as something that arises in the course of work. Therefore a resulting injury is eligible for workers’ comp benefits.
“The workplace creates a situation where workers, being what they are — fallible and sometimes playful human beings — will from time to time engage in pranks, some of which are dangerous,” the court wrote. “The playful or joking actions of the fellow employees are found to be an actual risk of the employment.”
That’s where the court drew the line: An injury from innocent horseplay is eligible for workers’ comp benefits. An injury from an assault at work that had nothing to do with the work situation isn’t.
The Virginia Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and sent Simms’ case back to the Workers’ Compensation Commission for reconsideration of the claim.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Should lawmakers address whether injuries from innocent employee horseplay are eligible for workers’ comp? Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.
(Matthew Edward Simms v. Ruby Tuesday, Inc., Supreme Court of Virginia, No. 091762, 1/13/11.)