Christopher D. Vanderbeek
The Missouri Supreme Court recently held that an employee who was injured while turning to walk away from a coffeemaker was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under Missouri law.
In Johme v. St. John’s Mercy Healthcare, Johme worked for St. John’s as a billing representative. While clocked into work, Johme made a pot of coffee. As she turned to walk back to her desk, Johme’s foot slipped off her shoe, causing her to twist her ankle and fall on her right side. The court noted that Johme was wearing “sandals with a thick heel and a flat bottom.” It also noted the following:
“There were no irregularities or hazards on the kitchen’s floor. The floor was not wet, and there was not any trash on the floor.”
An administrative law judge denied Johme’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits on the grounds that “she was not performing her [work] duties at the time of her fall at work,” and she “just fell and … would have been exposed to the same hazard or risk” outside of work.
In noting the relevance of exposure to “the same hazard or risk” outside of work, the judge was referencing language from Section 287.020.3(2) of the Missouri Revised Statutes. Section 287.020.3(1) defines “injury” as an injury that has “arisen out of an in the course of employment.” Section 287.020.3(2) states that an injury arises “out of and in the course of the employment” only if:
(a) It is reasonably apparent, upon consideration of all the circumstances, that the accident is the prevailing factor in causing the injury; and
(b) It does not come from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of and unrelated to the employment in normal nonemployment life.
Johme appealed the judge’s decision to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, which reversed the decision and awarded benefits.
The LIRC undertook a two-step process to come to its decision. First, the LIRC found that Johme’s risk of injury while making coffee was “incidental to and related to her employment” under the “personal comfort doctrine.” This doctrine, which was espoused prior to the 2005 amendments of the Workers’ Compensation Act, states that a risk or hazard is related to employment if the employee encounters it while acting to the benefit of the employer.
Second, the LIRC determined that once the hazard or risk that caused the injury is found to be “incidental to and related to the employment,” there is no need to determine whether the risk was one “to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of employment” under Section 287.020.3(2)(b). In support of this determination, the LIRC cited a 2010 Southern District Court of Appeals case, Pile v. Lake Regional Health Systems.
The employer appealed the LIRC’s decision on the basis that it was “not supported by sufficient competent evidence…to show that Johme’s injury arose out of and in the course of her employment” under Section 287.020.3(2).
The Missouri Supreme Court, in a 5-to-2 decision, reversed the LIRC’s decision. The court held that Johme failed to prove that her injury arose “out of and in the course of [her] employment” under Section 287.020.3(2). More specifically, Johme did not show that her injury resulted from a “risk related to her employment activity as opposed to a risk to which she was equally exposed in her ‘normal nonemployment life.’”
The court distinguished between two methods of analyzing whether an injury-causing risk is one to which the employee would be equally exposed outside of work. In the first method, the focus is on what the employee was doing when the injury occurred (e.g., Johme was making coffee for herself and others). The court implied that this method leads to a determination solely of whether the injury occurred “in the course of employment.” In the second method, the focus is on the “risk source” of the injury (e.g., Johme was turning to walk). The court implied that this method leads to a determination of whether the injury “[arose] out of” the employment.
The court noted that the LIRC relied on the first method in assessing whether Johme’s hazard/risk was one to which she would be equally exposed outside of work. The court found that the LIRC’s failure to also use the second method was erroneous.
In support of its decision, the court cited a previous Missouri Supreme Court case, Miller v. Missouri Highway & Transportation Commission. In Miller, the employee injured his knee “while he was walking briskly toward a truck containing repair material that was needed for his job.” The court held that the employee was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits because, though his injury occurred “in the course of employment,” it did not arise “out of employment,” because the “source-risk” underlying the injury – walking – was one to which the employee would have been equally exposed outside of work.
What This Case Means for Missouri Employers
It is important to understand that there are two types of compensable injuries under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act:
- accidental injuries, which occur suddenly as the result of one single incident; and
- “occupational diseases,” which occur as a result of long-term exposure to a hazard or as a result of repetitive use of the injured body part.
The court’s holding in Johme is applicable solely to accidental injuries, such as Johme’s accidental fall.
Because of the Johme case, it is now as important as ever for Missouri employers to gather copious details regarding the circumstances of alleged accidental injuries. For example, when an employee allegedly suffers an injury as a result of a fall, the employer should immediately determine (a) whether any specific environmental condition – i.e., debris, trash, water, food – caused the employee to fall; (b) what kind of shoes the employee was wearing when the fall occurred; (c) whether the employee was carrying anything when the fall occurred (and, if so, whether what was being carried had anything to do with the employee’s work activities); etc.
In gathering details, employers need to repeatedly ask themselves, “Did the risk that caused this injury arise out of the employee’s employment?” If the employer believes there is any possibility that the answer is “No,” the employer needs to gather all facts that could be even remotely supportive of the “No” answer.
In Johme’s case, relevant facts included that there was nothing on the floor where Johme fell and Johme’s shoe appeared to play a role in the fall. Johme’s supervisor completed an injury report, on which he stated that Johme was “…making coffee in the kitchen, turned to put [coffee] grounds in [the] trash, twisted [her] ankle and fell off [her] shoe….” This factual account was noted by the court in its decision, and the court emphasized the fact that Johme fell off her shoe in determining whether the cause of Johme’s injury was causally related to her work activities.
This shows just how important it can be for an employer to proactively gather information when confronted with an alleged accidental injury and how much of an impact that information can have.
Of course, after gathering as much information as possible regarding an alleged injury, employers should quickly provide the information to their workers’ compensation insurers.
Posted by Attorney Christopher D. Vanderbeek. Vanderbeek is involved in the evaluation and defense of workers’ compensation and other insurance claims, protecting the interests of employers and insurers.
06/14/12 2:17 PM
Filed under Business Law, Case Studies, Employment Law, Workers' Compensation | Comment (0)