In the “now I've heard everything” department, we can bring you this compelling bit of news: A New Jersey Appellate Court has ruled that a firefighter who had his genitals burned by an exploding toilet at the hands of a prankster did so within the course and scope of his employment. We could probably end with that intro and leave the rest up to your fertile imagination. But believe it or not, this case gets weirder. The decision that cited protections under workers' compensation wasn't generated by the denial of an injury claim. It was rather the result of a lawsuit against the prankster as well as a second lawsuit, brought by the prankster against the city for essentially letting him be a prankster.
Shall I start at the beginning?
The firefighter was on duty when he sat on a toilet in his firehouse in Linden, NJ. According to reports, he “heard and felt an explosion. He then noticed blood gushing into a blood blister on his scrotum.”
I'm sorry. I have to pause for a moment. Owie. Owie owie.
Ok, I'm back.
“He went to the hospital and was treated for a second-degree burn and bruising. He returned to work a month later without having missed any pay.”
The injury is said to have been caused by a “bang-snap” firework that was left by a co-worker as a prank. It is alleged that these types of devices are common at this firehouse in Linden, NJ.
The firefighter sued his co-worker, who had initially apologized to him for leaving the bang-snap device. He later denied both the apology and responsibility for the device in the toilet. We are not sure at what point he reversed himself, but we expect it was right around the time he was served with the lawsuit.
Our prankster then turned around and sued his employer, the city, for allowing “a high degree of pranking among on-duty firefighters.”
I have to say it. It takes really big kahunas to sue your employer for letting you be a douchebag. Good thing he wasn't the one sitting on the toilet. He wouldn't have had the equipment left for that maneuver.
Another part of the prankster's suit was to block the lawsuit against him. He claimed that New Jersey Workers' Compensation laws prevented his injured co-worker from suing him for damages. And the courts said he was right.
We are not surprised by that, but the finding of the incident being within the course and scope could really burn one's butt – but then again, look what we're talking about. That biscuit's in the oven already.
A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, and that decision was upheld by a three-judge panel earlier this month. The justices noted that the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act prevents injury lawsuits between co-workers when both were acting within the scope of their employment, and they determined that sitting on an exploding toilet is just part of the workday. Technically, they determined that the law makes an allowance for “horseplay and skylarking." They decided that if a worker is injured by a prank on the job, then that injury is considered having taken place “in the course of the employment” and the injured worker would be allowed to collect benefits. Since benefits were available to the injured worker, he was effectively blocked from suing a third party.
The decision read, in part, “The record established that [prankster] was accustomed to playing what he perceived to be harmless pranks on his coworkers while they were in the firehouse between assignments. The placement of a bang-snap on a men's room toilet falls within the realm of coworker horseplay intended to startle, but not injure, a coworker despite the unfortunate and unintended result in this instance." The justices also suggested that there was no suggestion that he intended to harm anyone and that there was evidence that bang-snaps had previously been used in the firehouse without injury.
Analyzing this story was a struggle; not because it did not provide fodder for discussion, but because it provided far too much opportunity to offend. I debated titling the post “Fire in the Hole!” but decided that description was both wholly appropriate and inappropriate all at the exact same time. And the potential jokes about roasted nuts are virtually endless.
No, you deserve better than all that. Just suffice it to know that if you tolerate practical jokes in the workplace, your employees may not be the only one's whose buns get toasted on the job.
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Robert Wilson is President & CEO of WorkersCompensation.com, and "From Bob's Cluttered Desk" comes his (often incoherent) thoughts, ramblings, observations and rants - often on workers' comp or employment issues, but occasionally not.
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