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Employer Liability for Tomfoolery in the Workplace: North Carolina’s Stance on Horseplay

By March 27, 2023April 4th, 2023No Comments
by Rylee Dillard Thornton

CHARLOTTE, NC – Generally speaking, one may assume that if an injured worker is “horsing around” or playing at work and such behavior results in injury, that the claim is not compensable. However, that is not always the case in North Carolina. Unlike several other jurisdictions, North Carolina has failed to carve out an exception for “horseplay” from the general principal that an employee’s injury on the job is compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act”). Instead, North Carolina courts have consistently pointed to the Act’s lack of defining horseplay when determining whether a claim involving this behavior is compensable. The courts have opined that it is human-nature to initiate and participate in good-natured fun within groups of people —whether at work or not. It is also the courts’ opinion that “horseplay” and “tomfoolery” are simply an anticipated part of the job, just as much as any other defined duty of a workers’ position. As a result, injuries resulting from horseplay can often be considered a compensable injury in North Carolina. However, as with most areas of the law, there are exceptions which are determined by the exact behavior that led to the injury.

In Bare v. Wayne Poultry Co., the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that horseplay which resulted in an employee sustaining a cut from a chicken deboning knife did, in fact, arise out of the course of her employment. The employee was working alongside her co-worker deboning chickens when the employee’s co-worker made a joke about his apron’s poor appearance. The employee playfully used her deboning knife to cut the strings of the apron. The same co-worker then attempted to playfully cut the employee’s apron but missed and accidently cut her thigh. The court stated, “the workers’ compensation system is based upon the realities of human conduct, and that workers occasionally relieving the tedium of their labors by sportive and foolish acts is a routine and accepted incident of employing them.” Bare v. Wayne Poultry Co., 70 N.C. App. 88, 318 S.E. 2d 534 (1984). The Court in Bare also stated that the plaintiff’s participation in the horseplay was irrelevant. Id. Referencing the Chambers decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that “the fact remains that the bulk of normal American workmen possess a stratum or residuum of vivacity and good nature which frequently manifests itself in joking and harmless pranks. These things are not unnatural, but natural and the ordinary outcropping of industrial contact between men of all classes and types. Such risks, therefore, are incident to the business and grow out of it.” Bare, 70 N.C. App. at 94 (quoting Chambers, 199 N.C. at 31, 594 S.E.2d at 595-96).

In some cases, however, injuries resulting from horseplay and tomfoolery are not compensable. For example, N.C.G.S § 97-12(3) provides an affirmative defense to defendants. The Act states that a plaintiff is barred from recovery if he had the willful intention to injure himself or another and that his intention was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Accordingly, if the defendant can prove that the plaintiff’s horseplay was a willful intent to inflect some injury on himself/herself or another, and the plaintiff’s injuries were proximately caused by said horseplay, then he/she is barred from compensation under the Act.  However, of note, the ability to establish “willful intent” on behalf of the plaintiff may prove to be a difficult feat for defendants.

In sum, defendants compensating work-related injuries sustained during horseplay has been a dividing issue throughout the US. However, in North Carolina, the courts have determined that horseplay is usually inherently connected to one’s job, and therefore, injuries resulting therefrom are likely compensable under the Act. Although incidents of “horseplay’ are often found compensable by the courts in North Carolina, exceptions and variations in that determination may ultimately be possible depending upon the specific facts of the case. Further, if the horseplay rises to the level of willful intent, defendants may be in a position assert the § 97-12 affirmative defense.  If you have a situation where someone has been injured at work during potential horseplay, you should consult with your attorney to discuss the specific facts of your case and whether a successful defense may be asserted in connection therewith.