Horseplay: Who Pays When Someone Gets Hurt?

When horseplay occurs in a work environment, does workers’ compensation apply?

Generally, an injury must 1) occur in the course of employment and 2) arise out of the worker’s employment to be compensable. Merriam-Webster defines horseplay as “rough or loud play: energetic and noisy playful activity.”’ Most job descriptions don’t include play…so should employees receive workers’ compensation for injuries occurring due to recreational activities or horseplay?

In the past, courts usually ruled against compensation, because horseplay and other non-work activities don’t arise out of the course of employment. Even non-participating employees were denied compensation for injuries caused by another employee’s horseplay.

Today, courts tend to be more liberal in awarding benefits, particularly when situations fall into a gray area. According to OSHA, an injury is presumed to be work-related if it results from an event occurring in the work environment. The work environment includes any location where one or more employees are working or are present as a condition of their employment. For example, what about injuries that occur at work-related recreational events, such as a company picnic or softball game? If the employer expects or encourages attendance or participation, the injury could be compensable.

Whether a court decides that these types of injuries occur in the course of employment could hinge upon four factors:


1   Where the injury occurred. If it occurred on the employer’s premises, it’s not always compensable, but more likely to be.

2   Employer expectations. Did the injury occur at an employer-sponsored or employer-organized event? Courts are more likely to find injuries compensable when they occur at an event where employees are expected or encouraged to attend.

3   The employer’s financial role. If the employer sponsored or financially supported the activity where the injury occurred, compensation becomes more likely.

4   Whether the activity benefited the employer. One could argue that a sports team that wears shirts with company logos advertises the company, or that company outings boost employee morale and team spirit.

When it comes to horseplay claims, some courts apply “Larson’s Rule.” Named after Larson’s Workers’ Compensation, a 17-volume manual covering workers’ compensation law, relevant court cases and analysis, Larson’s Rule on horseplay considers several factors:


1   Did the activity leading to injury deviate substantially from normal activities? In some cases, horseplay can become rough or cruel enough to be considered bullying or workplace violence.

2   How long did it last? Did the horseplay occur during ordinary duties, or did all regular work stop?

3   Does horseplay occur routinely? If it does and the employer does nothing to stop it, then horseplay could be considered a normal part of employment at that workplace.

4   What are industry norms? In some industries, horseplay occurs more regularly than in others.


To prevent horseplay-related injuries, employers should take the following action steps:


1   Define job duties specifically.

2   Include a prohibition of horseplay in work areas in your employee handbook. Define work areas specifically.

3   Where appropriate, post signs.

4   Enforce your policies with disciplinary action, if necessary.


For more information on preventing horseplay or improving workplace safety, please contact us.