In its June 16 ruling in Frett v State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned an 85-year-old ruling that under the Workers Compensation Act, accidents at work that occurred during “scheduled rest periods” were Georgia could not be compensated.
However, Frett’s decision does not completely eliminate the defense against rest. Rather, the “automatic” operation of defense is eliminated so that the analysis focuses more on traditional employment considerations that arise from and during employment relationships.
The Frett case
The applicant in Frett got out, prepared her lunch, and left the break room to go outside to eat when she slipped into the water and fell. While entitlements that arise while an employee is “going and coming” to or from work cannot generally be compensated, there is an exception for entitlements that arise during “going” or “leaving” work. A hearing judge ruled that Ms. Frett’s claim could be compensated under the exception of “getting in / out”. The Appeals Department reversed and the Supreme Court upheld the reversal.
The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that any “boarding / disembarking” was part of the disruption and not a commute, that the “boarding or disembarking” allowance did not apply to a disruption, and therefore that the entire disruption was not compensable . The appeals court focused on the fact that the applicant was “free to do what she wanted” and was not under sufficient control of the employer to warrant compensation. However, the appeals court recognized that the law in defense of the break was unclear and essentially asked the Georgia Supreme Court to weigh it up.
In its June 16 ruling, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the violation was indemnifiable and should not have been automatically dismissed just because it occurred during a scheduled hiatus. According to the court, Ms. Frett’s injury arose out of and in the course of her employment because, due to her working conditions, she fell on the employer’s premises while performing a function which was sufficiently “accidental” for her employment. Still, she was on a break.
The court overturned its 85-year-old decision in Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corp. against Farr, in which the injury of an employee who fell from the clock in the absence of a clock and went to a boiler room where he wanted to eat was classified as non-indemnifiable for his lunch.
Although the Frett Court overruled Farr, it did not rule out the possibility that another case with different facts related to the “break” might lead to a different outcome and not be indemnifiable. The Frett Court carefully stated that “the lack of pay and freedom of action in narrow cases in which the type and timing of the work of the employee at the time of the injury are only marginally related to her usual working hours or hours can be significant factors work-related activities. “(Emphasis added.)
In other words, the hearing judges and the courts will now conduct a fact-based analysis on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the violation “[arose] from and in the course of employment, instead of automatically rejecting the claim because the employee was on a planned break. The court found it significant that Ms. “Frett actually used her break time to prepare and eat her lunch, and not to run personal errands.” This leaves the door open to assisted refusals when the break time is less “random” used for work or more personally or separately from work.
While Frett’s elimination of the automatic “break defense” is important, it is not earth-shaking or the last word. The Frett Court appeared to be doing its best to minimize the importance of its repeal of Farr:
Farr is more than 85 years old. Regardless of his age, however, it is difficult to say with a straight face that Farr is deeply anchored in our jurisdiction. . . We haven’t quoted Farr on any proposal in the past 60 years. While the Court of Appeals has on occasion relied on Farr to deny a claim for damages under the law, more often, and more recently, it has developed rules and exemptions that have effectively limited Farr’s primacy to its facts. Until the Court of Appeal’s decision in Frett, legal confidence in Farr was limited at best. . . At least until the following Frett decision, no employer or employee could determine with certainty whether an injury in the employer’s break room or during the lunch break falls under the law – everything depended on the particular facts of the individual case.
This does not solve this problem. Until recently, there was a pending case in which the applicant was injured during a lunch break, but outside of the employer’s premises. The Frett Court discussion shows that the employer may still have a valid defense in this case. This particular case may have been settled, but there will be more “break” cases with facts to show that the injury was not “accidental” at work, but rather separate and did not arise from or in the course of employment.
In summary, the Frett Court has not abandoned the basic concept that a claim cannot be compensated if it does not arise from and during the employment relationship, and that an injury sustained while the employee is on break may not meet these criteria. A claim is no longer automatically denied just because the employee was on a break at the time of the injury. If the employee is on the employer’s premises during the break and does normal ancillary activities such as lunch, the entitlement is likely to be eligible for compensation. Farr went too far. Frett hopes not to go too far in the other direction.