Practical Jokes in the Workplace – when a joke goes too far.

Practical jokes and horseplay are undoubtedly an iconic aspect of Australia, given our global recognition as humorous ‘larrikins’.

These practical jokes are often brought into the workplace upon which employees prank, tease and trick each other. These workplace pranks aren’t intended to be maliciously hurt or bully other colleagues, but rather are designed to provoke something all Australians love: a good laugh. Yet, these practical jokes and pranks around the workplace may soon become a thing of the past, with the recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Queensland in Cincovic v Blenner’s Transport Pty Ltd.


The workplace prank gone wrong

48-year-old Goran Cincovic (the plaintiff) worked as a truck driver in Brisbane. On 30 March 2014 Mr Cincovic was making deliveries and parked his truck at a Blenner’s Transport (the defendant) depot. While at the depot, the plaintiff needed to return a pallet jack into his truck. To move the pallet jack into his truck, Cincovic rode it like a scooter by placing one foot onto each of the tyres of the pallet jack whilst holding onto the handle with both hands. The plaintiff pushed the pallet jack with his foot and began to slowly roll across the dock area towards his truck.

While he was crossing the floor, another employee, Starling, approached Cincovic from behind and used his foot to push one of the tyres of the pallet jack. This push caused Cincovic to fall backwards off the pallet jack, causing his back and head to strike the concrete floor. Cincovic sustained compression fractures to his spine as a result of this incident.


Taking the case to court

Court rejected allegations the employer allowed horseplay in the workplace

Starling claimed that him pushing the tyre was a practical joke, as he and Cincovic were involved in horseplay.

However, Cincovic denied any involvement with Starling that would constitute skylarking or horseplay. Cincovic claimed that skylarking and horseplay was never prohibited at the workplace. In fact Cincovic claimed that he had seen employees riding pallet jacks, doing burn-outs with forklifts in the wet area, turning off the gas to the forklift and lifting people on pallet jacks into trucks. Cincovic claimed that even though the supervisors observed this horseplay the employees were not reprimanded. However, these allegations were denied by several supervisors during cross examination.

The court found in favour of the defendant in this aspect, ruling that the supervisors provided enough evidence to prove that they prohibited horseplay practices at the workplace.


Deciding the Employer was liable

Although the Court rejected these allegations that the defendant (Blenner’s Transport) permitted horseplay, they still found the defendant vicariously liable (this is when you’re found liable for someone else’s actions or failings – particularly relevant for employers) for Starling’s actions.

In making their decision, the court considered the connection between the wrongful act and Starling’s employment, and whether it would be fair and just to ascribe vicarious liability for that wrongful act.

The court ultimately found that Starling’s act of pushing the pallet jack could properly be seen as an action to assist in the transportation of the pallet jack to its desired location. The court was satisfied that “Starling’s act, whilst unauthorised, is properly to be viewed as having occurred within the scope and course of his employment with the defendant.”

The defendant was therefore held to be vicariously liable for Starling’s actions and any consequent injuries sustained by the plaintiff.


How much compensation was paid?

The Court considered the extent of Cincovic’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.

The court ultimately ruled that the plaintiff was to be compensated $874,669.70 (minus WorkCover deductions) for the loss suffered as a result of his injuries.


Take-aways: be careful with practical jokes in the workplace.

This recent judgment has placed an unprecedented expectation on employers to implement strict standards and rules to ensure workplace horseplay is prohibited.

For employees, this judgement serves as a warning against practical jokes in the workplace. Employees should think twice before pranking their colleagues, as this case shows that the long-term consequences may outweigh the short-term fun.