Atlanta, GA (WorkersCompensation.com) – Much has changed since 1935, and in Georgia that includes whether workers’ compensation benefits are available when an employee slips and falls on a scheduled lunch break.
Deciding that an 85-year-old precedent case should be overturned, the Georgia Supreme Court determined in Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, No. S19G0447 (Ga. 06/16/20), that an insurance claims associate’s injuries from slipping on water in the break room while taking her mandatory lunch break were compensable.
After the fall, the associate filed a workers’ compensation claim, and an administrative law judge awarded benefits. An appeals board rejected the ALJ’s decision, finding that the associate’s injury didn’t arise out of her employment but “out of a purely personal matter.”
The trial court and appeals court also held in the company’s favor, determining that the associate’s injury wasn’t compensable because it occurred during a scheduled lunch break when she was “free to do as she pleased.”
The associate appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
‘In the Course Of’ and ‘Arising Out Of’
In Georgia, workers’ compensation law provides for compensation only for injuries that occur “in the course of” and “arise out of” employment. A majority of the court determined that the associate’s injury satisfied both parts.
According to the majority, the associate’s injury occurred “in the course of” her employment because preparing to eat lunch was “incidental to her employment and … not beyond the scope of compensability.” It didn’t matter to the majority that the associate wasn’t paid during her lunch break or that she was free to do other tasks during that time.
The majority noted that the associate “was injured during an ordinary lunch break in the middle of her workday in a break room provided by her employer for the use of employees.” Additionally, she wasn’t running a personal errand, which would have meant the injury didn’t occur “in the course of” her employment.
Examining the “arising out of” requirement, the majority explained that there must be a connection between the conditions the employee had to work under and the injury. The majority considered the associate’s case by analyzing whether she faced a hazard that she wouldn’t have faced apart from her employment.
“It is undisputed that [the associate] was injured when she slipped and fell on the wet floor of the break room on her employer’s premises,” the majority reasoned. “It logically follows that her injury was causally connected to the conditions under which she worked, and her injury, therefore ‘arose out of’ her employment.”
Based on the facts, the associate’s case seemed to line up almost identically with a precedent case, Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corporation v. Farr, 178 S.E. 728 (Ga. 1935), also decided by the Georgia Supreme Court. In the Farr case, a plumber was injured when he tripped and fell while walking down stairs to a boiler room where he intended to eat his lunch.
While the court in that case assumed that the injury occurred “in the course” of the plumber’s employment, it concluded that the it didn’t “arise out of” his employment. Specifically, the court determined that the plumber’s preparation for eating lunch was “his individual affair” and not part of the employer’s work.
So, what was different in 2020 that the court felt moved to find in the associate’s favor when it previously had ruled against the plumber? Not much, other than a majority of the court’s justices, who determined that Farr was no longer worth following.
“The reasoning of Farr is unsound,” the majority explained.
In particular, the majority reasoned that its Farr predecessors focused on the fact that the plumber had “knocked off” from work and failed to consider whether there was a connection between the conditions under which the work was required to be performed and the resulting injury.
“[T]he worker’s injury in Farr occurred precisely as a result of his working conditions,” the majority noted. “[H]e tripped and fell on the steps at his work site, while engaged in an activity incidental to his employment.”
The majority also rejected Farr on the basis of “workability,” explaining that inconsistencies arose in which claims by traveling employees who were injured while getting meals were compensable under other cases while ones like the plumber’s (and associate’s) weren’t.
Under the standards of Farr and cases involving traveling workers, an employee preparing to eat lunch “was engaged wholly in her personal affairs, and so any injury suffered by the employee would not ‘arise out of’ employment, unless, of course, that employee was on a business trip,” the majority highlighted.
Additionally, following the Farr decision, the majority noted similar confusion occurred because Georgia courts recognized claims when the employee was permitted to eat or use the restroom while on the clock but rejected those involving a mandatory off-the-clock break.
“[I]f the employee slipped and fell while exiting the break room to go back to work, she probably would be covered, but if she slipped on the same spot while exiting the break room to use the restroom before going to work, coverage likely would not apply,” the majority reasoned.
The majority explained that the age of Farr alone wasn’t enough to save it under the doctrine of stare decisis, which maintains that precedent cases should be followed when similar circumstances come up again.
“[N]o employer or employee could tell for certain whether an injury occurring in the employer’s break room or during lunch would be covered,” the majority reasoned. “And we have no reason to believe that our overruling of Farr will detrimentally affect anyone’s course of conduct.”
Thus, the majority reversed and remanded the appeals court’s decision on the associate’s case.
A dissenting justice opined that Farr should not be overruled “without an unusually compelling reason.” In this justice’s view, stare decisis principles should apply and the majority’s arguments weren’t “sufficient justification for changing our mind after nearly nine decades.”