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Practical jokes landing employers in hot water

Given that Australian’s are commonly described as being larrikins and enjoying a laugh, it is perhaps no surprise that practical jokes may be brought into the workplace. While such workplace jokes or pranks may not be intended to maliciously hurt or bully colleagues, a number of recent cases have supported the need for care to be taken and perhaps the need for such workplace pranks to become a thing of the past.

In the case of Cincovic v Blenner’s Transport Pty Ltd, the Supreme Court of Queensland awarded an employee almost $875,000 in compensation (minus WorkCover deductions) for the loss suffered as a result injuries sustained in a workplace prank.

In this case, a 48-year-old truck driver was making deliveries when he parked his truck at a Blenner’s Transport depot in March 2014. While at the depot, the truck driver needed to return a pallet jack into his truck, and he rode it like a scooter by placing one foot onto each of the wheels of the pallet jack whilst holding onto the handle with both hands. After pushing the pallet jack with his foot, he began to slowly roll across the dock area towards his truck.

While crossing the floor, another employee him from behind and used his foot to push one of the wheels of the pallet jack, causing the truck driver to fall backwards off the pallet jack. The fall resulting in the truck driver striking his back and head on the concrete floor, resulting in sustained compression fractures to his spine.

It was claimed that the push was a practical joke and that the employees had been involved in horseplay. The truck driver however, denied this claim but stated that horseplay was never prohibited at the workplace. These allegations were denied by several supervisors during cross examination.

The Court found the employer to be vicariously liable for the actions of the employees who had pushed the pallet jack and for any consequent injuries sustained by the plaintiff.

The Court considered the extent of the truck driver’s injuries and calculated his past and future earning and superannuation loss, future medical expenses and other relevant factors before deciding on a compensatory sum. It was ultimately ruled that he was to be compensated $874,669.70 (minus WorkCover deductions) for the loss suffered as a result of his injuries.

In a separate, more recent matter, a tour operator employee has launched action in Queensland’s Industrial Relations Commission against his employer for racial vilification following “joke” conducted by his colleagues.

In this case, the employee is claiming that he was forced to take a period of stress leave after being subjected to racial vilification that affected his mental health. The alleged incident involved the employee being handed a sunscreen spray bottle which had been covered in yellow tape with the handwritten message “black guy repllent [sic]” by colleagues when he had asked for some sunscreen.

The employer, Rainbow Beach Adventure Company, reportedly initially responded to the employee’s complaints by stating that the incident was simply a “practical joke”. However, the parent company, Website Travel Group, later issued a statement describing the actions of its employee as being “abhorrent and totally unacceptable”. The company further distanced itself from the matter by providing that the conduct “in no way reflects the culture or beliefs of our company, managers and staff”.

The employer confirmed that they had promptly addressed the matter with the employees involved and that they genuinely regretted their actions.

This matter was heard before the Commission, however the amount of settlement was not disclosed.

For both employers and employees, these cases serve as a warning against practical jokes in the workplace and place an unprecedented obligation on employers to implement clear expectations in relation to standards of performance.

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