Fighting and Horseplay in the Workplace
When thinking about injuries at the workplace, many of the first things that often come to mind are single-employee accidents like slips and trips, muscle strains from lifting heavy objects, or cuts and bruises from sometimes-improper use of machinery. But what happens when an employee’s work injuries are caused by the actions of somebody else? Predictably, the answer depends on the circumstances.  

Ohio Workers’ Compensation Generally
The workers’ compensation system in Ohio provides certain medical and wage benefits to employees who sustain injuries both in the course of their employment and arising out of their employment. That may sound a bit clunkier than just saying “injuries at work,” but there is meaning behind the specific language, “in the course of” and “arising out of.”  

Whether an injury occurs in the course of the employee’s employment depends on the time, place, and circumstances of the injury, limiting workers’ compensation benefits to employees who are injured while engaging in some essential job duty or activity that is logically related to their employers’ business. Moreover, an injury arises out of the employment when there is a causal connection between the employee’s injury and their employment—that their employment was the proximate cause of the injury.

Keeping the aforementioned language in mind, if an employee sustains an injury of an accidental nature while performing some essential job duty at work, that injury is generally covered. If the injury was caused by a co-worker’s actions, but still of an accidental nature and occurring in the course of and arising out of the employment—that is, both employees were just doing their jobs—the injury is likewise generally covered. Things become more complicated, however, when the injury is the result of fighting or horseplay involving the injured worker.

Fighting in the Workplace
For an injury sustained during a fight or assault to be compensable, Ohio courts have uniformly held that two requirements must be met: (1) the origin of the assault must have been work-related; and (2) the injured worker must not have been the instigator of the fight. It does not matter whether the fight or assault involves a co-worker or not, only that those two requirements are met, so even an assault from a non-employee member of the public can give rise to a workers’ compensation claim if it was over something work-related and the injured worker was not the instigator.

For the first requirement—that the fight must be over something work-related—this is an extremely fact-specific inquiry. Very rarely do physical fights and assaults have no personal element to them whatsoever. As such, it is always a good idea for employers to fully investigate any and all fights that occur involving employees, as there will likely be an at least colorable defense against a potential workers compensation claim that there was a strictly personal and non-work-related reason behind the fight/assault. Tying it back to the language discussed above, the personal nature of a fight can take it out of the purview of the workers’ compensation system because it severs the causal connection between the injury and the employment.

The second requirement is slightly more clear-cut, but not by much, as there are often arguments over who truly instigated a fight in the workplace. This is still a fact-specific inquiry, but the issue of instigation typically comes down to the question of who initiated the physical contact. For this requirement, again looking at the legal standard for workers’ compensation claims discussed above, the fact that the injured worker instigated the fight in the first place would mean that that employee was decidedly not performing an essential job duty at the time of the injury.

Horseplay in the Workplace
The term, “horseplay,” has no special legal definition in the context of Ohio Workers’ Compensation law, but simply refers to pranks and “goofing around” amongst employees at the workplace. Horseplay in the workplace is treated similarly to fighting in the workplace in that an injured worker is not eligible for workers’ compensation coverage if they were the instigator of the horseplay, while an innocent victim of horseplay may have a compensable claim.

The rationale behind the system’s treatment of horseplay also comports with the general rule discussed above that, to be compensable, an injury must occur in the course of and arising out of the injured worker’s employment; playing pranks and goofing around at work is generally held to not be sufficiently connected to one’s employment.

It is important to note, however, that even instigators of horseplay may have compensable claims where the employer consents to any type of horseplay resulting in injury. It may sound unbelievable at first to imagine an employer consenting to potentially dangerous horseplay, but Ohio courts treat supervisors as an extension of the employer in this area of the law, so a supervisor allowing—or, as is sometimes the case, even engaging in—the horseplay can result in compensable claims for any injuries that result from that horseplay. As such, this one of the many important reasons employers have to be especially careful when selecting, training, and monitoring their supervisors.