Safety and OSHA News

Fainted at work, hit her head: Why did court award workers’ comp benefits?

No one is arguing that this employee’s fainting spell on the job wasn’t caused by work. So why did she receive workers’ comp benefits after a recent court ruling? 

Sharon Clements worked as a mess hall attendant at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT. She was an employer of Aramark Corp.

On Sept. 19, 2012, Clements arrived for work, walked from the parking lot into a building and down a hallway, then went through a door to go outside to get to the next building. While she was outdoors between the two buildings, she became light-headed, passed out and fell backward onto the pavement, hitting her head.

Clements was discovered by co-workers, who called for help. First responders found her lying on the ground with a bump on her head. She was unable to sign a consent from “because of her level of consciousness.” Clements was taken to the hospital where she was treated for a concussion.

While in the ER, Clements suffered cardiac arrest and then had a pacemaker inserted. She had a history of cardiac disease.

Based on her medical records, a workers’ compensation commissioner determined her injury didn’t arise out of her employment, but was caused by a “cardiogenic syncope.”

The Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed the commissioner’s decision. Clements appealed to a state court.

Clements argued her head injury was caused by her head striking the ground at work, not by fainting due to her pre-existing cardiac condition. Aramark said her head wouldn’t have hit the ground if she hadn’t fallen as the result of the pre-existing condition.

Clements’ attorney relied on a 1937 Connecticut Supreme Court decision in its arguments. In that case, a church employee had been found in the basement recreation room at the rectory, lying flat on his back. He’d apparently fallen backward on the concrete floor and fractured his skull. The employee had previously suffered from a heart murmur.

In the 1937 case, the state’s highest court said:

“An injury received in the course of the employment does not cease to be one arising out of the employment merely because some infirmity due to disease has originally set in action the final and proximate cause of the injury. The employer of labor takes his workman as he finds him … “

Workers’ compensation benefits were awarded in that case.

Aramark argued the 1937 case was different because the church employee had been working on a ladder.

But the appeals court deciding Clements’ case disagreed. The court noted the church worker hadn’t fallen off a ladder. The court determined the worker had been standing on the ground, not on the ladder, when he fell backward.

The appeals court found the 1937 case to be very similar to Clements’. Therefore, it reversed the Board’s decision and said Clements should receive workers’ comp benefits.

“Although the personal infirmity that caused her to fall did not arise out of her employment, the resultant injuries that were caused by her head hitting the ground at her workplace did arise out of her employment,” the appeals court found.

In other words, Clements’ fainting spell wasn’t caused by work, but her concussion that she suffered when her head hit the ground at her workplace was.

(Sharon Clements v. Aramark Corp., Appellate Court of Connecticut, No. AC 39488, 5/29/18)

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  1. What always throws me in these cases is that the requirements of “In the course of, and arising out of”. I think that some courts use the same definition for both. “In the course of” seems to me that is related to time and work activity as in, was the person at work when this happened(?). “Arising out of”, to me at least, seems like it’s related to the specific work activity, for example, was an employee injured while working a lathe(?).
    An article published on this site a few weeks ago was about a guy in a work truck who smoked an e-cigarette and passed out due to his personal medical condition, he was turned down for workers comp. He attempted the same argument as the person in this article, that because it happened while he was at work, that automatically makes it work related. This lady won her comp on this geographic presumption while the other guy didn’t.

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