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A New Jersey appellate court held that a firefighter failed to show that his employer and a co-worker were liable for damages to injuries he sustained after a prank.
In Johns v. Wengerter, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division in Jersey City unanimously held Monday that workers compensation was the exclusive remedy for his injuries.
On Nov. 27, 2015, the firefighter was using the toilet in the men’s bathroom when he heard and felt an explosion. He sustained second-degree burns on his genitalia. An investigation revealed that a fellow firefighter had placed a bag of “bang snaps” or small fireworks without a fuse that detonate when compressed on the toilet, though the record later states that he denied the accusation.
The injured firefighter sought treatment at a medical facility and was placed off-duty. He returned to work two weeks later, and the city paid all of his medical expenses. He did not file a workers compensation claim and the co-worker was suspended for the incident.
On March 8, 2016, he filed a complaint against the co-worker seeking damages for his injuries. The co-worker argued that his claims were barred by the Workers Compensation Act because he was injured by a co-worker while both were acting within the scope of their employment. He also filed a third-party complaint against the city, alleging it was responsible for any damages awarded against the co-worker because it allegedly allowed a high degree of pranking among on-duty firefighters.
A trial court dismissed the firefighter’s complaints with prejudice, holding that his claims were barred by the act and that his co-worker did not have a “subjective desire” to injure anyone with the prank. The firefighter appealed, but the appellate court affirmed the decision.
The appellate court held that the exclusive-remedy provision of the WCA applies where an employee is injured by a co-worker, unless there is "intentional wrong." The court concluded that the legislative intent in the act was to find that injuries caused by “horseplay” may be construed “to have arisen out of and in the course of employment” and therefore compensable under the act.
The placement of the firecrackers on the men’s room toilet fell within the realm of co-worker horseplay “intended to startle, but not injure” the co-worker, the court said, despite the unfortunate result in the instance, and noted that the acts took place at the workplace and while they were on duty.
The court also disagreed with the injured firefighter’s assertion that the acts of his co-worker were intentional. The record showed that bang snaps had been regularly used in firehouse pranks and that there was no evidence that the co-worker had the “deliberate intention” to injure the firefighter.
Attorneys in the case did not immediately return calls for comment.
The Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation said Tuesday it will expand its funding for a new grant program aimed at protecting firefighters from carcinogens and other toxins that cause long-term health ailments.