A state supreme court recently issued opinions in two workers’ comp cases involving employees who were injured when they tripped and fell at work. One opinion contains a clarification of the so-called “idiopathic exception” to workers’ compensation.
In the first case, Carolyn Nicholson was on her way to a meeting when her foot caught on the hall carpet and she fell. She was treated for neck and shoulder pain.
A commissioner denied her workers’ comp claim because she failed to prove a causal connection between her fall and employment. The commissioner said there wasn’t anything specific to the floor at her workplace which contributed to her fall and she could have fallen anywhere.
A split panel of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission reversed that decision. Two of three commissioners found Nicholson’s fall wasn’t unexplained or idiopathic. The fall was “brought on by a purely personal condition unrelated to the employment, such as a heart attack or seizure.” The majority also found that it was irrelevant that she could have fallen in the same manner somewhere else – she fell at work, therefore she should receive workers’ comp.
A state appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that, although the fall wasn’t unexplained or idiopathic, the carpet wasn’t a hazard or specific condition particular to her employment that contributed to or caused her injuries.
After receiving the case, the South Carolina Supreme Court boiled it down to one question:
“Does an injury arise out of a claimant’s employment when she falls while carrying out a task for her employer, but there is no evidence that a specific danger or hazard of the work caused the fall?”
Nicholson argued the appeals court incorrectly focused on whether there was a specific hazard unique to her workplace that caused her fall. The supreme court agreed, saying the appeals court misread the law.
The supreme court said the law says an injury isn’t compensable without some causal connection to the workplace. It doesn’t require a worker to prove her injury is entirely unique to her employment:
“For example, a chef may cut himself with a knife, or a carpenter may fall off a ladder just as easily while at home rather than at work. However, this possibility alone does not remove such an accident from the scope of compensation if the accident occurred at work. Alleging an accident is not unique to employment, without more, is not a viable basis for denying compensation.”
The court said Nicholson was at work on the way to a meeting when she tripped and fell. The circumstances of her employment required her to walk down the hall to perform her responsibilities and in the course of doing so, she was injured. Therefore, she’s entitled to workers’ compensation.
(Carolyn M. Nicholson v. S.C. Department of Social Services, South Carolina Supreme Court, No. 27478, 1/14/15)
So what is an idiopathic injury?
In the second case, Judy Barnes, an administrative assistant at Charter 1 Realty, was asked to check the email of one of the realtors one day. When Barnes walked toward the realtor’s office, she stumbled, fell and sustained serious injuries: a broken left femur, broken left humerus and a torn rotator cuff.
A workers’ comp commissioner denied her claim, finding there was no explanation for her fall and it wasn’t caused by a work hazard or a deficiency in the carpet. The commissioner concluded Barnes’ fall was idiopathic. Both the Workers’ Compensation Commission and a state appeals court affirmed the original decision.
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that this case required it to clarify what is and isn’t an idiopathic injury.
The supreme court said the idiopathic fall doctrine says:
“An idiopathic injury does not stem from an accident, but is brought on by a condition particular to the employee that could have manifested itself anywhere.”
A fall isn’t idiopathic because the employee isn’t able to point to a specific cause, according to the supreme court. “It is irrelevant that the carpet or hallway was not defective. Whether she tripped because she was hurrying or she tripped over her own feet, neither is an internal breakdown or weakness that falls within the ambit of idiopathy,” the court wrote.
The court also found that Barnes was performing a work task when she tripped and fell.
So for those reasons, the court ruled she should receive workers’ comp benefits.
Note: Not all states’ workers’ comp laws allow for a workers’ comp claim to be denied for unexplained falls.
What do you think about these decisions? Let us know in the comments.
(Judy Marie Barnes v. Charter 1 Realty, South Carolina Supreme Court, No. 27479, 1/14/15)