Georgia Supreme Court Overrules 85-Year-Old Workers’ Compensation Precedent

Workers’ compensation requires Georgia employers to pay medical and wage replacement benefits to employees injured “in the course of” employment. This includes not only injuries that occur while actively working, but also during times “incidental” to a job, such as entering or exiting the employer’s premises. However, employers are not liable for injuries that occur when an employee is engaged in an “individual pursuit.”

Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation

In 2018, we discussed a decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, where an employee was injured during a scheduled lunch break. To briefly recap, the employee was a claims adjuster at State Farm. The employer required her to take an unpaid 45-minute lunch break each day. On the day in question, the employee clocked out for lunch, went to the break room to prepare some food, and slipped and fell as she exited the room.

State Farm denied workers’ compensation benefits, arguing that the employee’s injury did not “arise out of” her employment, as she was on a lunch break. The Court of Appeals felt compelled to side with State Farm based on existing precedent from the Georgia Supreme Court. Under a 1935 decision, Ocean Acc. & Guar. Corp. v. Farr, an employer does not have to pay workers’ compensation for injuries that occur while an employee is on a “scheduled break.” However, this created an apparent conflict with other cases that said employees are covered while entering or exiting the employer’s premises, as was the situation here.

To resolve this conflict, the Supreme Court decided to overrule Farr. In a June 16 opinion, the Court said Farr was “at odds with the analytical framework that this Court has consistently applied in workers’ compensation cases since the adoption of the Act in 1920.” Indeed, Farr has “produced a number of apparent inconsistencies” in the law. For example, the Court pointed to a 1945 decision where it “held that a traveling salesman injured on his way from dinner was entitled to compensation,” since “eating a meal was an activity incidental to his employment.” If that was the case then, the Court reasoned now, why did the same rule not also apply to the “work of an ordinary employee” injured on their lunch break? Both employees were injured “in the course of their employment.”

As noted above, Farr also conflicts with the rule, developed later, that holds an employer is liable for injuries that occur while an employee is entering or exiting the premises. When combined with Farr, the Supreme Court said “the law concerning injuries occurring during rest breaks or lunch breaks became confusing at best, if not altogether incoherent.” While courts typically try to follow their own precedents–a principle known as stare decisis–the Court said “it would be hard to assert with a straight face that Farr has become deeply entrenched in our jurisprudence.” So, as far as the present case was concerned, the Supreme Court said the employee’s injuries incurred during her lunch break did arise “out of” her employment for purposes of workers’ compensation law.

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