Falls are among the most common – and perilous – workplace hazards. While construction industry falls garner the most attention, everyday falls are suffered by everyone from restaurant workers to sales employees to office managers.
Although the severity of injuries may vary, falls that arise out of and in the course of employment should be compensable.
Recently in South Carolina, the state high court weighed the case of Nicholson v. SC Dept. of Social Services, in which a social worker was injured in an office fall and sought workers’ compensation benefits. Her employer argued the fall could have happened anywhere, and thus wasn’t compensable. The workers’ compensation commissioner initially denied her benefits, but she prevailed in her case when the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that just because the cause of her fall was unexplained didn’t mean it was idiopathic.
However, courts across the country continue to wrestle with this issue. Injuries that are idiopathic can occur anywhere at any time, and thus an employer shouldn’t be liable for them (think heart attack or stroke that has nothing to do with work-related stress). But employers often seek to apply these interpretations more broadly than they should, characterizing every unexplained work injury as being “idiopathic.”
The good news for those in South Carolina is the Nicholson decision cements our high court’s pro-worker stance on the issue. Other courts haven’t decided in the same manner.
The recent case of Arrowhead Senior Living Cmty. v. Kainz is a good example.
According to court records, worker fractured her ankle on a staircase while at work in a senior living facility. She filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, but her employer contested the award of benefits because, it said, her injuries did not “arise out of” her employment.
The compensation judge awarded injuries, the state workers’ compensation court of appeals affirmed. The case was appealed to the state supreme court, which stayed while it was considering another case that pertained to the “work connection test” that balanced the “arising out of” element as it pertains to compensability of work injuries. After reaching a decision on the other case, the high court remanded to the appeals court with findings consistent.
On remand, the appellate court affirmed, even as it applied the “increased risk” test. That test requires a worker to show workplace injuries exposed him/her to an increased risk of injury over what he/she would face in every day life. In other words, it’s a “special hazard.”
The state supreme court reversed on appeal, finding the decision contrary to the evidence.
This is troubling because compensation for workplace injuries are supposed to be granted broadly in favor of workers. That’s part of the exchange workers made when workers’ compensation laws were first passed: They would agree not to sue for occupational injuries, if employers agreed to cover their medical expenses and a stipulation of wages while they recovered. But increasingly, we are seeing instances where employers are arguing against coverage of injuries that occur at work, leaving many workers with few options.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Arrowhead Senior Living Cmty. v. Kainz, March 4, 2015, Minnesota Suprem Court
More Blog Entries
Nicholson v. SC Dept. of Social Services – SC Supreme Court Weighs Work Falls, Feb. 12, 2015, Greenville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog