An employee twisted her ankle at work, fell and fractured a bone. It’s the sort of injury she could have suffered at home. Does the injury qualify for workers’ comp benefits?
Sandy Johme was a billing clerk at St. John’s Mercy Healthcare in Missouri. Her work involved typing at a computer in an office.
One day she went to the coffee station in her office. She took the last bit of coffee so she made another pot.
At the time, Johme was wearing sandals with a thick heel and a flat bottom with a one-inch thick sole. There were no hazards on the floor and it was dry.
Johme said she twisted her ankle and fell off her shoe, falling backwards and landing on the floor.
She was taken to a hospital where an x-ray showed a fracture of her pelvis.
Johme said she had tripped at work because of the shoes she was wearing, according to hospital records.
Nevertheless, Johme applied for workers’ comp benefits for her injury.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) denied her claim because she would have been exposed to the same hazard or risk in her normal life outside of work.
Johme appealed to the state’s Labor and Industrial Relations Commission.
Does personal comfort doctrine apply?
The Commission reversed the ALJ’s decision due to the “personal comfort doctrine,” which says workers’ comp benefits could still be available to an employee who was injured when “tending to a basic personal need while at work.” The doctrine reasoned that employees’ personal activities can be within the course of employment if they ultimately benefit the employer.
That led St. John’s to take the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.
The court noted that the state legislature had amended Missouri’s workers’ comp law. In amending it, the personal comfort doctrine was called into question, and new requirements were made for an employee to get workers’ comp benefits.
Specifically, the new law said an injury arises out of and in the course of employment only if it doesn’t come from a hazard or risk to which workers would have been equally exposed to outside of employment in normal life.
St. John’s argued Johme’s injury didn’t meet that new criteria, and the court agreed.
The court said it’s not enough that an employee’s injury occurs while doing something related to work, in this case, making coffee.
So the final decision: Johme doesn’t get workers’ comp.
A note: One judge on the Missouri Supreme Court filed a dissenting opinion, saying Johme’s injury was caused by a work-related risk.
The judge said the work-related task and the injury in this case were “inextricably entwined.”
“The fact that the injury occurred while one is working is, in most cases, the necessary factual predicate for showing that the injury is work-related,” the judge wrote.
Missouri isn’t the only state that has tried to tighten its workers’ comp law in this way. With a strict interpretation such as this, more cases will be found not to qualify for workers’ comp.
That raises some questions. Example: If a worker has to use stairs at work to get from one floor of the building to another and trips, falls and injures himself on the stairs, is that compensable? Based on an argument that the worker could also suffer such a fall at home, this case might not be eligible for workers’ comp. But what if there was a spill on the steps? Would that make a difference?
How broad do you think workers’ comp laws should be? Is this type of law too strict? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
(Johme v. St. John’s, Supreme Court of Missouri, No. SC92113, 5/29/12)