Georgia Court Reaffirms Scheduled Lunch Break Exception

Written by: Daniel Richardson, Esq.

Rochelle Frett worked as a claims associate for State Farm. Each workday she had a mandatory unpaid 45-minute lunch break. During her lunch break she was free to do as she pleased, including leaving the office for lunch. She was not expected or asked to do any work on her lunch break. Her habit was to go the breakroom, prepare her food, then go outside the building to eat at a bench or in her car.

On the day of her accident, Frett microwaved her food, and as she started to exit the breakroom to take her lunch outside, she slipped on water and fell.  She was still inside the company’s breakroom when she fell.  She was in pain, left work, and later sought temporary total disability benefits.  An Administrative Law Judge awarded her benefits under Worker’s Compensation, but that was reversed on appeal to the Board.  The Board’s appellate decision was affirmed by the Superior Court of Dekalb County.  The Georgia Court of Appeals took a discretionary appeal and earlier this month affirmed the denial of benefits.

To be compensable in Georgia, an injury by accident must arise “out of and in the course of employment.” O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1(4).  Two different lines of legal reasoning potentially apply to this situation.  First, the Ga. Supreme Court has long held that there exists a lunch break exception to compensability.  The reasoning is that during the lunch hour the employee turns aside from their employment for their own purposes. An injury during a scheduled lunch break arises out of the employee’s individual pursuit, not out of her employment. For this exception to apply, the break must be scheduled.  But if the exception applies, it does so even if the injury occurs within working hours and on the employer’s premises.

The other line of reasoning involves the ingress and egress rule.  It has long been established that preparations by the employee at the place of employment, to begin the work for which he is employed, is a part of the duties of the employment.  In Fed. Ins. Co. v. Coram, 95 Ga. App. 622 (1957), the Court of Appeals applied this rule to an employee injured while she walked to her parked car at the end of the work day. Ingress and egress to a vehicle at the beginning or end of the work day is a necessary incident of employment and does not arise from a “purely personal mission.”  The Court of Appeals had previously extended the ingress and regress rule even to an employee returning from lunch, despite the lunch break exception.

In Frett’s case, the Court of Appeals recognized the potential conflict between the ingress and egress rule and the scheduled lunch exception, and they noted the confusion in their own previous decisions. Therefore, they came down with a bright-line rule protecting the lunch break exception unless and until the Georgia Supreme Court rules otherwise. Looking forward, an employer can ensure that the lunch break exception applies by making lunches or other breaks regularly scheduled, and by making clear that employees should not work on their breaks. The potential downside is that the lunch break exception might apply even to an accident occurring on the employer’s premises. And where the exclusive remedy of Worker’s Compensation does not apply, the law of torts may.