An employee had previously injured his knee off the job. One day at work while walking down stairs, his knee gave out and he injured his back. Should workers’ comp cover his injuries?
John Simons worked for the Village of Villa Park in Illinois as a community services officer in the police department, handling complaints, reports and calls.
On April 5, 2007, Simons was walking down a stairwell to the police locker room in the building where he was stationed. When he reached the third step, his injured knee gave out, causing him to fall down about seven stairs to the landing below. He felt pain in his injured knee and lower back.
An MRI showed there was no new damage to Simons’ right knee. Another MRI did show injury to his back.
Simons went ahead with his scheduled knee surgery in May 2007 and returned to work in August 2007.
He also sought workers’ comp benefits for injuries to his knee and back from the fall down the stairs.
At a hearing before an arbitrator, Simons said the pain in his knee increased after the fall and he suffered from constant back pain. He also stated the fall had been the first injury to his back.
The arbitrator found walking down stairs itself didn’t establish a risk greater than those faced outside the workplace, and for that reason his knee and back injuries shouldn’t be covered by workers’ comp.
A majority on the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission reversed the arbitrator’s decision, finding the injury did arise out of and in the course of his employment. The Commission reasoned Simons’ use of the stairs fell within the “personal comfort doctrine,” which states the course of employment includes certain acts relating to the employee’s personal comfort such as short breaks for eating, drinking and using the restroom.
Simons said he used the stairs at least half a dozen times a day to access the locker room and other facilities located on that floor such as the lunch room. The Commission concluded Simons’ repeated use of the stairs for his employment exposed him to a greater risk than the general public and he should receive benefits for the injury to his knee.
However, the Commission found his knee injury wasn’t compensable because the MRI after his fall on the stairs showed no change from one taken after his off-the-job accident.
One dissenting commissioner opined that because of his pre-existing knee condition, walking down the stairs didn’t expose him to a risk greater than the general public.
On appeal, a county court upheld the Commission’s majority decision. Recently, an Illinois Appeals Court heard the case.
At a greater risk?
The appeals court noted that “injuries resulting from a fall caused by some personal weakness of the claimant, such as a weak knee, are not compensable under [workers’ comp] unless the claimant’s employment significantly contributes to the injury by placing him in a position of greater risk of falling.”
However, there is an exception to this when the requirements of the worker’s job create a risk the general public isn’t exposed to.
The appeals court found evidence showed Simons was continually required to use the stairway both for his personal comfort and to complete his work activities. In fact, he used the stairs a minimum of six times a day.
The Village required Simons to use the stairs in the police station knowing that he had an injured knee. Therefore, his employment placed him at a greater risk of falling, satisfying the exception to falls caused by personal weakness.
For that reason, the appeals court upheld the decision originally made by the majority on the Worker’s Compensation Commission that Simons should receive benefits for his injured back but not for his knee because an MRI that showed he sustained no additional damage from the fall at work.
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(Village of Villa Park v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, Appellate Court of IL, 2nd Dist., No. 2-13-0038WC, 12/31/13)