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Sharing lessons from April 1: Pranks gone wrong

8:04 AM, Apr 1, 2013   |    comments
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KUSA - Thinking of pranking your co-workers for April Fools' Day? Tricks gone-wrong at work can result in injuries or lawsuits or both.

Denver labor law attorney Kim Ryan explored this issue with 9NEWS 7 a.m.

While pranksters may relish the opportunities provided by April Fools' Day, they should carefully consider potential legal ramifications before doing something they might regret.

Ryan said that workplace April Fools' pranks gone-wrong can fall into three broad categories: 1) injuries to people; 2) damages to employers' interests; and 3) waste of company resources.

Injuries to people should be avoided at all costs, according to Ryan. Whether April Fools' Day injuries are physical or emotional, they can result in serious liability for companies or co-workers who take things too far.

In one tragic April Fools' case, an employer reportedly thought it would be funny to shoot a worker with a high-powered hose, resulting in serious bodily injury to the worker. A separate April Fools' incident was investigated as second-degree assault after someone spread superglue on a toilet at Wal-Mart, resulting in injuries to an unsuspecting patron.

Ryan said another case provides an example of what workers should not do on April Fools' Day or ever. A jury awarded monetary damages to an employee who was subjected to ridicule and insult when his co-workers posted a racially offensive cartoon depicting him as a drug-addicted monkey in violation of the company's anti-harassment policies. The jury also assessed punitive damages against the company because managers failed to take any remedial action in response to the workers' harassment.

Companies' interests also can be damaged by April Fools' jokes gone wrong. Colorado residents may remember a prominent newspaper's April Fools' report of a fictional Pikes Peak "volcanic eruption." Ryan said that while it may have provided a few laughs, the gag could have backfired and caused damage to the journalistic integrity of the paper, or worse, a mass panic like the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast announcing the imaginary "arrival of Martians" in 1938.

In a more recent case a blogger falsely reported the "bankruptcy" of a well-known competing blog site - later claiming it was "just an April Fools' joke." The subject of the "joke" responded with a post of his own, noting that since he had managed to contain the potential reputational damage, he would not sue. However, had the original post caused the blog site to lose a business deal, the outcome could have had serious ramifications for the prankster including a lawsuit for defamation of character, tortious interference with business advantage, or a claim of false light publicity.

Even the more "benign" pranks may be viewed unfavorably by employers as a waste of company resources, according to Ryan. In one recent blog, a worker posted the April Fools' Day plans of his office mates to move a co-worker's desk into the office's handicap restroom stall. Aside from the risk of a potential discrimination claim by the targeted employee, Ryan said the time drain associated with such a prank could result in disciplinary action by an employer.

While no one wants to ban fun in the workplace, employers and workers alike should consider the consequences of any potential shenanigans - and avoid becoming a fool at work on April 1.

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