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Fights in the workplace are not all that uncommon, and occasionally injuries occur. While workers’ compensation typically covers any injury that occurs in the course of performing one’s work, any deliberate or illegal act on the part of the injured person will generally preclude that person from receiving benefits. Fights between employees can pose a dilemma, often falling within a gray area of the workers’ comp law.
In California, the initial physical aggressor in a fight will be barred from collecting benefits. The problem is, how to determine who the initial physical aggressor was. It may not necessarily be the one who made the first physical contact.
Say, for example, Worker A, a 250 pound, six-foot five-inch tall bodybuilder who practices boxing in his spare time; worker B, is a five-foot three, 130 pound computer programmer. Worker B curses under his breath when Worker A, while moving some boxes, passes his desk and knocks some files to the floor. Worker A then uses a pejorative word referring to Worker B’s sexual preference as he invades Worker B’s personal space. Worker B shoves him away. Worker A slams Worker B into a wall and proceeds to punch him repeatedly, resulting in a brain injury. Although the first physical contact was made by Worker B, Worker A had no reason to believe he was under any threat of physical harm from Worker B. His reaction to the minor contact was out of line and excessive. In this case, Worker B has a good case for collecting Workers’ Compensation benefits for his injury.
Another case where the person who made the first contact might not be considered the initial aggressor might be if one worker comes upon another just as he has reached into the company’s cash box and removed several hundred dollars. The thief refuses to return the money when asked, and attempts to leave with it. The coworker grabs the thief’s wrists in an attempt to recover the money, but the thief breaks loose, grabs him around the neck, and shakes him viciously, resulting in a serious injury with paralysis. The victim in this case would also likely qualify for workers’ compensation benefits, as the initial contact was an attempt to thwart a crime.
Some other cases are more difficult to sort out. Sometimes two workers will be engaged in horseplay or goofing around on the job, which then escalates into a verbal confrontation and ends up in a fight, and a worker is injured. Horseplay is not generally considered appropriate behavior at work. A worker engaging in horseplay is not at that moment performing his job; on the contrary, he is deliberately engaging in a potentially unsafe activity. He entered into the activity voluntarily, it escalated, and now he is injured. Should he be able to collect benefits? Can he reasonably say he was injured while performing his job, even though he was present and clocked in at the worksite? Were his own actions responsible for his injury, even though it was inflicted by someone else? Did the employer clearly discourage horseplay on the job, or in some way encourage it?
Horseplay is one of those gray areas of the law, not specifically addressed by statute, and thus often left up to interpretation by the courts. In a 2011 court decision, Nufio v. Bridge Hospitality L.L.C., involved two employees who were engaged in horseplay that turned into a fight with injuries. The court ruled that the claimant should be allowed to receive workers’ compensation benefits because it could not be said that he was the initial physical aggressor.
In a clear-cut case where the injured was the unprovoked aggressor, benefits will usually be denied. In others, however, where the facts are less straightforward, the lawyers for the claimant and the employer may have to fight it out in the courts.