In its June 16 decision in Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, the Supreme Court of Georgia overruled an 85-year-old decision which held that workplace injuries incurred during “scheduled rest breaks” were not compensable under Georgia workers’ compensation law.

However, the Frett decision does not eliminate the rest break defense entirely. Rather, it eliminates the “automatic” operation of the defense, leaving the analysis to be more focused on traditional “arising out of and in the course of” employment considerations.

The Frett case

The claimant in Frett clocked out, prepared her lunch, and was leaving the break room to go outside to eat, when she slipped in water and fell. Although generally claims that arise while an employee is “going and coming” to or from work are not compensable, there is an exception for claims that arise during “ingress” or “egress” to the workplace. A hearing judge ruled that Ms. Frett’s claim was compensable under the “ingress/egress” exception. The Appellate Division reversed, and the Superior Court affirmed the reversal.

The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed, determining that all “ingress/egress” was part of the break and not a commute, that the “ingress or egress” allowance did not apply to a break, and thus that the entire break was not compensable. The Court of Appeals focused on the fact that the claimant was “free to do as she pleased” and was not under sufficient employer control as to warrant compensability. However, the Court of Appeals recognized that the law involving the rest break defense was unclear, and essentially invited the Supreme Court of Georgia to weigh in.

In its decision issued on June 16, the state Supreme Court held that the injury was compensable, and should not have been automatically dismissed just because it occurred during a scheduled break. According to the Court, Ms. Frett’s injury arose out of and in the course of her employment because she fell on the employer’s premises, as a result of her working conditions, while engaged in a function that was sufficiently “incidental” to her employment, notwithstanding that she was on a break.

The Court overruled its 85-year-old decision in Ocean Accident & Guarantee Corp. v. Farr, which found non-compensable the injury of an employee who fell while he was off the clock and walking to a boiler room where he planned to eat his lunch.

Although the Frett Court overruled Farr, it did not eliminate the possibility that another case with different facts surrounding the “break” would have a different outcome and would not be compensable. The Frett Court was careful to note that “the lack of payment and freedom to act may be significant factors in close cases, where the nature and timing of the employee’s activity at the time of the injury are only tenuously connected to her usual work hours or work-related activities.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, hearing judges and the courts will now apply a fact-based, case-by-case analysis as to whether the injury “[arose] out of and in the course of” employment rather than automatically denying the claim because the employee was on a scheduled break. The Court found it significant that Ms. “Frett was indeed using her break time to prepare and eat her lunch, not to run some personal errand.” This leaves the door open for supported denials when break time is being used in a manner less “incidental” to work, or more personal or disconnected from work.

What now?

Although Frett’s elimination of the automatic “break defense” is significant, it is not earth shattering and it is not the final word. The Frett Court seemed to take pains to minimize the significance of its overruling of Farr:

Farr is more than 85 years old. Notwithstanding its age, however, it would be hard to assert with a straight face that Farr has become deeply entrenched in our jurisprudence . . . we have not cited Farr for any proposition at all in the past 60 years. Although the Court of Appeals occasionally has relied on Farr to reject a claim for compensation under the Act, it more frequently and more recently has devised rules and exceptions that have effectively limited the precedential effect of Farr narrowly to its facts. Until the decision of the Court of Appeals in Frett below, jurisprudential reliance on Farr was limited at best . . . at least until the Frett decision below, no employer or employee could tell for certain whether an injury occurring in the employer’s break room or during lunch hour would be covered under the Act—it all depended on the particular facts of each individual case.

Thus, this issue is not resolved. Until very recently, there was a pending case in which the claimant was injured while on a lunch break, but off the employer’s premises. The Frett Court’s discussion indicates that the employer in this case may still have a valid defense. This specific case may have settled, but there will be more “break” cases with facts that show the injury was not “incidental” to work but rather separate, and not arising out of or in the course of employment.

In summary, the Frett Court has not abandoned the basic concept that a claim is not compensable if it does not arise out of and in the course of employment, and that an injury incurred while the employee is on a break may not meet that criteria. A claim will no longer be automatically denied simply because the employee was on a break when the injury occurred. Presumably, if the employee is on the employer’s premises during the break and engaging in ordinary incidental activities such as eating lunch, the claim is likely to be compensable. Farr went too far. Frett hopes not to go too far in the other direction.

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