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Pipefitter falls from tree during work day: Is injury covered under workers' comp?

Not every accident or injury during the work day is
Not every accident or injury during the work day is "work related" and eligible for workers' compensation. (Photo: iStock)

A Mississippi court has upheld a decision by the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission that an injury suffered by a worker when he fell out of a tree that he had climbed for fun during a lull in a slow workday was not compensable under the state’s workers’ compensation law.

As a pipefitter for Fabricated Pipe Inc., Paul Haney’s primary job was to assemble pipe parts into larger systems based on drawings. He also occasionally assisted coworkers with tasks such as moving pipe, cleaning the work yard or loading and unloading trucks.

One day, Haney and some coworkers were cleaning up the work yard. At some point, they took a break from cleaning, and Haney sat in the shade of a gum tree and began sending text messages.

Haney claimed that his coworkers were talking near a water cooler about six feet away, and one or more of them “decided to start throwing dirt clumps at [him] to aggravate [him].” Haney said that he walked over to the water cooler, and the men continued talking. Their conversation turned to the subject of tree climbing and about how they had climbed trees as children.

According to Haney, one of his coworkers climbed about 14 feet up the tree. Then, Haney – who was six feet five inches tall and weighed approximately 250 pounds – climbed the tree to a height of approximately 25 feet.

The coworker safely climbed down from the tree, but the tree snapped and Haney fell 25 feet to the ground.

Haney had trouble breathing and was in significant pain after the fall. He was taken to a local hospital and diagnosed with five broken ribs and a spinal cord injury. Haney also had cracked his right shoulder blade. He later was airlifted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) in Jackson where he was treated. Haney underwent spinal surgery and was discharged a week later. However, he soon returned to UMMC because of fluid in his lungs.

Haney was discharged six days later to Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson for physical and occupational therapy. 

Injuries were outside scope of employment

Haney filed a claim alleging work-related injuries to his back, shoulder, and right foot. Fabricated Pipe answered and denied that Haney’s injury had occurred within the scope and course of his employment.

An administrative judge ruled in favor of Haney and Fabricated Pipe petitioned the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission for review of the administrative judge’s ruling. The commission reversed the administrative judge’s decision and found that Haney’s fall and injuries had not occurred within the scope and in the course of his employment.

Haney went to court to appeal the commission’s decision, claiming that his tree climbing was mere “horseplay” during a lull in his work duties, not a deviation from his employment. 

Under the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Act “Compensation shall be payable for disability or death of an employee from injury ... arising out of and in the course of employment, without regard to fault as to the cause of the injury.”

Related: Top 5 most common workplace accidents and injuries

More than ‘minor deviation’

The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed.

In its decision, the court explained that, in some cases “horseplay” among coworkers may amount to such a minor deviation from job duties that any injury resulting therefrom will be deemed within the scope and course of employment. However, the court continued, when horseplay rose to the level of a complete and total deviation from an employee’s duties, resulting injuries were not compensable under the Mississippi workers’ compensation laws.

Here, the court said, Haney had made a voluntary decision to leave his area of employment (the work yard) by climbing 25 feet up a tree. The court said that, 25 feet in the air, he was not “present and ready” to further his employer’s business, and he had not suggested that his tree climbing had in any way furthered his employment.

Indeed, the court said, Haney’s tree climbing “had absolutely no relationship to his job duties.” Put simply, falling out of a tree was not a “risk incident to his employment” as a pipefitter but was a risk that he “brought to the workplace” by his own decisions to climb 25 feet up a small gum tree and to ignore his coworkers’ pleas to get down. 

The court concluded that there was “substantial evidence” to support the commission’s determination that Haney’s tree climbing was a “complete and serious deviation from his employment and was not within the scope and course of his employment.” 

The case is Haney v. Fabricated Pipe, Inc.


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