Safety and OSHA News

Tripped in building lobby on way to work: Does she get workers’ comp?

An employee injured her shoulder after falling in the lobby of the office building where she worked. She filed for workers’ comp benefits. Did she get them?

Catherine Sheldon worked for US Bank in Oregon. She filed a workers’ comp claim after she tripped, fell and injured her shoulder. She said she didn’t know what caused her to trip, but she thought her foot got caught on the lip of a floor tile. US Bank’s investigator found the tile had “the slightest of a lip,” probably around 1/16th of an inch.

US Bank denied Sheldon’s claim, saying her fall could have been caused by idiopathic factors, specifically her diabetes and obesity.

An administrative law judge (ALJ) heard the case. A doctor hired by the bank who examined Sheldon’s medical records said her diabetes was a potential contributing cause in her fall because the disease is known to cause peripheral neuropathy in the lower extremities which affects sensation and reflexes. The doctor said her obesity could also affect her balance and mobility.

Sheldon testified she’d never been diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy and she’d never experienced balance or mobility problems because of her obesity. Her primary care doctor said the same thing.

The ALJ concluded the possibility that Sheldon’s medical conditions caused her fall was speculative, therefore eliminating idiopathic causes of her fall. However, the ALJ also found since she’d been on her way to work when she fell and her employer didn’t have control over the building lobby (the company only rented office space), her fall wasn’t compensable.

The Workers’ Compensation Board also denied Sheldon’s claim but for a different reason. The Board ruled Sheldon didn’t eliminate the possible idiopathic reasons for her fall.

The Oregon Court of Appeals reviewed Sheldon’s case. The court remanded the case back to the Board, saying a worker didn’t have to eliminate all theoretically possible idiopathic causes for an injury. In effect, the Board had used the wrong standard in its decision.

Next stop: the Oregon Supreme Court. The state’s highest court said both the Board and the appeals court had used the wrong test in Sheldon’s case. So first, the court had to spell out what test should be applied to injuries with unexplained causes.

The court said to determine if a fall is unexplained and the worker is eligible for workers’ comp benefits, the Board must find there is no nonspeculative explanation for the fall.

Since the Board didn’t use that legal standard, the case goes back to the Board for reconsideration. Even after reaching the top court in Oregon, this case isn’t over yet.

(Catherine Sheldon v. US BankSupreme Court of Oregon, No. SC S064478, 5/23/19)

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