An employee who was on the clock bent over to tie his shoelace and felt a pop in his back. After that he had two back surgeries and applied for workers’ comp. Read how a company safety policy factored into a court’s decision in this case.
Michael Vawter worked as a delivery driver for UPS in Idaho. On Dec. 18, 2009, he reported for work and started his truck to let it warm up because it was 20 degrees below zero.
He went inside the facility while waiting for the truck to warm up and bent over to tie his boot laces. While bending over, Vawter felt a pop and pain in his lower back.
A doctor diagnosed Vawter with a herniated disc and early symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, a neurologic condition that affects nerve roots below the bottom of the spinal cord.
Vawter had two surgeries on his back, one in January 2010 and one in July 2010.
UPS denied Vawter’s claim for workers’ comp benefits. The Idaho Industrial Commission found Vawter suffered an injury resulting from an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment with UPS and was entitled to temporary total disability benefits and medical expenses. At a subsequent hearing, the Commission found Vawter was totally and permanently disabled.
The company appealed and the case went to the Idaho Supreme Court.
Company policy: ‘No dangling parts’
UPS didn’t contest that Vawter’s injury arose out of employment since he was on the clock and on work property. However, it argued that it didn’t happen in the course of employment because his risk of having a back injury while tying his shoe was no greater at work than it was anywhere else.
In considering the case, the court went back to the Commission’s ruling which noted:
“No rational person would disagree, that anyone whose job includes the requirements of carrying boxes all day … would do well to keep his shoes tied.”
Not only did the court agree with that, it also noted a UPS shoe policy of “no loose or dangling parts” which prohibited employees from leaving shoelaces untied.
That’s a reasonable safety policy. After all, what employer would want a trip-and-fall injury because an employee left his shoes untied?
That led the Idaho Supreme Court to come to this conclusion: “Vawter tied his shoes for UPS’ benefit, and the accident causing his injury therefore arose out of his employment.”
Argument No. 2: Pre-existing condition
UPS had another argument regarding Vawter’s case. The company said the Idaho Industrial Special Indemnity Fund was liable for a portion of Vawter’s benefits because he had previously injured his back on the job years earlier.
But in 1991, a UPS-appointed doctor found Vawter had no permanent impairment from the first back injury.
Given that fact, the Idaho Supreme Court chided UPS for trying to argue that Vawter’s previous injury should shift some of the financial burden to the special fund which helped cover pre-existing injuries:
“Because of its position in 1991, UPS avoided paying benefits to Vawter. Now, UPS takes the opposite position to again avoid making payments.”
So the court also ruled that UPS was 100% liable for Vawter’s workers’ comp benefits.
As always, we’d like to know what you think about this court decision. But we’re also curious about company policies regarding footwear. Have you ever had to put such a policy – that shoes always have to be tied – in writing? Have you ever had a case in which an untied shoe led to a trip-and-fall injury to a worker? Let us know in the comments.
(Vawter v. United Parcel Service Inc., Supreme Court of Idaho, 2014 Opinion No. 6, 2/7/14)