A maintenance worker slipped and fell on a wet sidewalk. He suffered a fractured pelvis and several other injuries, and after three surgeries, he still had a lot of physical pain. He also suffered from depression and loss of sleep. Can he get additional workers’ comp benefits for psychiatric injuries?
Mark Dreher worked as a maintenance supervisor for Alliance Residential LLC in California. One day as he was walking in the rain from one building to another, Dreher slipped and fell on a concrete sidewalk. He suffered numerous injuries:
- a fractured pelvis
- injuries to his neck, right shoulder, right leg and knee
- gait derangement
- a sleep disorder, and
He had surgeries to:
- repair pelvis fractures
- repair a torn meniscus, and
- address issues with his right foot and ankle, including hammertoe and claw toes formation.
Almost two years after he was injured, he sought compensation for a psychiatric injury arising from the fall and underwent an evaluation. The evaluation concluded Dreher suffered a psychiatric disability as a result of the fall, including depression, difficulty sleeping and panic attacks.
A workers’ comp judge found Dreher sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of his employment but denied his claim for psychiatric injury based on California law.
The law said if the worker was employed for less than six months and the psychiatric injury didn’t result from a sudden and extraordinary employment condition, the psychiatric injury isn’t compensable.
Dreher had worked for Alliance only 74 days when he was injured. The WCJ found that a slip-and-fall didn’t qualify as a sudden and extraordinary condition.
The California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board overturned the WCJ’s decision, finding the injury was caused by an extraordinary employment condition. Alliance appealed to a state court.
Extraordinary incident or injury?
“The question presented here is whether Dreher’s injury was a ‘sudden and extraordinary employment condition’ within the meaning of [California law],” the appeals court stated.
Previous California appeals court decisions suggested extraordinary employment conditions include things like gas main explosions or workplace violence, but not accidental injuries.
In one case, a wall shelf holding a large amount of lumber gave way without warning, resulting in a stack of lumber falling on the employee’s leg. The court concluded the incident was totally unexpected and qualified as extraordinary.
But in another case, a worker fell from the top of a 24-foot ladder while picking avocados from a 36-foot tree. The court said that wasn’t an uncommon or unexpected occurrence, rather, it was an occupational hazard of picking avocados while standing on a ladder.
Dreher argued that the unexpectedly catastrophic nature of his injuries qualified as an extraordinary employment condition. But the court didn’t agree.
The court said California law doesn’t include the nature of the injuries resulting from an incident as the basis for psychiatric injury compensation. The court wrote:
“Although Dreher’s injury was more serious than might be expected, it did not constitute, nor was it caused by, a sudden and extraordinary employment event … The evidence showed that Dreher routinely walked between buildings on concrete walkways … Dreher’s slip-and-fall was the kind of incident that could reasonably be expected to occur.”
Dreher says he was surprised by the slick surface of the sidewalk because other walkways at the complex had a rough surface. But the court said that didn’t satisfy the requirement of the law.
Therefore, the appeals court overturned the WCAB’s decision and said Dreher couldn’t get additional workers’ comp benefits for his psychiatric injury.
(Travelers Casualty & Surety Company et al v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and Mark Dreher, Court of Appeal of the State of California, First Appellate Dist., Div. Four, No. A146538, 4/22/16)