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Supreme Court of Georgia Overrules the Lunch Break Exception

Written by: Kawania B. James, Esq. 

Last year, the Court of Appeals of Georgia’s decision in Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Compensation, et al. created a bright-line rule that protected what is commonly referred to as the lunch break exception, despite the potential conflict between the ingress and egress rule. On June 16, 2020, the Supreme Court of Georgia reversed the Court of Appeals and overruled the Supreme Court’s prior decision that developed the “lunch break exception.” The full opinion can be found here.

The lunch break exception dates back, at a minimum, 85 years ago from the Supreme Court of Georgia’s decision in Ocean Acc. & Guar. Corp. v. Farr, 180 Ga. 266, 178 S.E. 728 (1935). In Farr, the claimant was injured when he tripped and fell while on a job site. At the time of the claimant’s fall, he was off of the clock for his lunch break and walking to a boiler room where he intended to eat his lunch. In 1935, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled, in part, that the claimant’s preparation of his lunch and eating lunch were not part of the employer’s work, and the claimant’s accident arose from his individual pursuit. Thus, the claim was not compensable.

Fast forward to 2020, the Supreme Court of Georgia was presented with a similar set of facts in the Frett case. Rochelle Frett sustained an injury when she slipped and fell during a scheduled lunch break. Specifically, Ms. Frett was on her mandatory, unpaid lunch break (during which time she could do as she pleased). Ms. Frett was exiting the employer’s break room with the intention of taking her lunch outside of the building to eat when she fell.

At the lower level, the ALJ ruled that Ms. Frett’s claim was compensable. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the ALJ and opined that the scheduled break exception applied. The Appellate Division’s ruling was upheld by the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals. To that end, the Court of Appeals further discussed a perceived conflict regarding the compensability of an injury sustained when there is an argument that the ingress/egress rule applies versus the lunch break exception. The Court of Appeals applied the lunch break exception in Ms. Frett’s claim and concluded that the injury was not compensable. However, the Court of Appeals also expressly invited the Supreme Court to decide whether to apply the ingress and egress rule to the scheduled break exception, which brings us to the recent ruling.

The Supreme Court of Georgia used the Frett case as an opportunity to overrule Farr and apply the ingress/egress rule. The Court determined that the reasoning for the Farr opinion was unsound. The opinion expresses criticism of the perceived lack of analysis with regard to causation and deciding whether the claimant’s injury arose out of his employment. For the Frett case, the Court reasoned that an employee’s preparation of her lunch (despite being on a scheduled break) is incidental to employment and reasonably necessary to sustain comfort. Accordingly, the employee was “in the course of” her employment at the time of the fall. Further, the Court concluded that the claimant’s injury “arose out of” her employment because she slipped and fell on the employer’s premises.

Ultimately, as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Frett, when an employee is on a scheduled lunch break but sustains an injury while on the employer’s premises, that can result in a compensable claim. It is important to note that the Supreme Court was careful to explain that it is not creating any bright-line rules with regard to the employee being “in the course of employment,” and the outcome in each case depends on the circumstances of that case. Nonetheless, the application of ingress/egress has been expanded, and the long-standing scheduled break exception from Farr as we once knew it is no longer valid.