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Injured falling down stairs: Does this qualify for workers’ comp benefits?

What happens when no one witnessed an injury and the injured worker doesn’t remember it? 

Terrill Graber worked as a forklift operator for Jackson’s Dairy, a Dillon Companies subsidiary, in Kansas. Graber was required to attend a paid safety meeting at the Dillon headquarters. The meeting was on the second floor.

When the meeting ended, Graber walked to a restroom near a set of stairs. He was found face down on a landing in the stairs about midway down. He broke three vertebra in his neck, was hospitalized for several days and underwent surgery.

Graber didn’t remember leaving the restroom and there were no witnesses. There was no evidence to show how the fall occurred.

Graber suffered from diabetes which required him to take insulin and check his blood sugar daily. He says he hadn’t checked his blood sugar on the day of his fall, however he’d never had any adverse effects from high blood sugar.

There was no evidence Graber’s diabetes contributed to his fall. Two people testified that on the day of the training, nothing appeared wrong with Graber.

Graber applied for worker’s compensation benefits. An administrative law judge awarded him benefits, reasoning the requirement to use the stairs increased the risk to Graber so his fall wasn’t from an idiopathic or neutral risk. Dillon appealed, arguing the fall’s cause was unknown, which meant his injuries arose from an idiopathic cause.

The Kansas Workers’ Compensation Board agreed with Dillon, noting that in 2011, the state had enacted legislation to exclude idiopathic injuries from coverage.

Graber appealed. A state appeals court reverse the Board’s decision, saying Graber’s injury wasn’t idiopathic. Dillon appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

This case represents the first time the state’s highest court would have to interpret the meaning of “idiopathic” in the 2011 legislation which revised the Kansas workers’ comp law.

Dillon argued idiopathic meant, simply, of unknown origin.

However, after considering dictionary meanings, references in other cases and Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, the Kansas Supreme Court decided:

“The plain language of [Kansas law] renders an injury noncompensable only upon proof the injury or accident arose directly or indirectly from a medical condition or medical event of unknown origin peculiar to the claimant. The term ‘idiopathic’ as used in the caselaw and its definition in workers compensation treatises add persuasive heft to this conclusion.”

The Kansas Supreme Court found there was no evidence to show why Graber fell, therefore there was no evidence he fell because of a medical condition or event. As a result, his injury wasn’t idiopathic. The appeals court’s decision was upheld and remanded to the Board for consideration for workers’ comp benefits.

(Graber v. Dillon, Supreme Court of the State of Kansas, No. 113,412, 4/12/19)

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