One argument for not awarding workers’ comp benefits is that the employee would have been at the same risk away from work – in other words, the risk wasn’t specific to the workplace. Was that the case here?
Jon Phillips worked for ConAgra Foods Inc. in Missouri as a forklift driver. One day, Phillips was injured after falling off a shallow-graded ramp while entering ConAgra’s break room. The ramp didn’t have a safety rail. (The day after Phillips’ fall, ConAgra ordered installation of a rail “to prevent Team Members from falling/slipping off the graded drop off.”)
Phillips was transported by ambulance to the hospital. The ambulance report says Phillips told medics that his “leg gave out” and he fell to the concrete floor. The record shows Phillips told ambulance attendants the same leg had been broken in four places before. An x-ray showed Phillips fractured his left hip. He had surgery to repair it. Later he filed for workers’ comp.
A doctor examined Phillips at the request of ConAgra. The doctor considered idiopathic causes of his injury, that is an injury “not arising out of and during the course of his employment as being the precipitating event” for which Phillips “would have been at that same risk if he had been at work or away from work.” The doctor concluded Phillips’ injury was work-related and not idiopathic.
Despite the doctor’s report, ConAgra still contested Phillips’ comp claim, arguing his injury was idiopathic.
Phillips testified about how he fell. He said he turned to come off the ramp and caught the heel of his boot on it.
In 1991, Phillips broke his left knee in four places and had surgery to repair it. His knee had never buckled, causing him to fall.
The Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission awarded Phillips permanent partial disability benefits. ConAgra appealed.
‘A vague statement’
ConAgra argued that Phillips fell due to his previous leg injury, noting that the ambulance report said his leg gave out on him.
However, a nurse’s comprehensive report at the hospital noted Phillips “slid off the side of a ramp, landed on his left hip,” and that “he was walking one minute and the next minute he landed on the floor.”
The court said ConAgra seemed to ignore this part of the medical record in making its argument. The judges also said “his leg gave out” is a vague statement that doesn’t prove an idiopathic cause for the fall. It’s plausible someone’s leg could “give out” after slipping.
ConAgra also argued Phillips could have faced the same hazard off work, so the injury doesn’t qualify for workers’ comp.
But the court agreed with the Commission’s assessment of the situation:
“We find that employer’s unguarded ramp constituted a risk source not encountered in employee’s everyday life.”
The court noted that a sloped incline typically has a wall or rail on each side. ConAgra’s was unguarded, and that was a risk specific to Phillips’ workplace.
The court agreed with the Commission that Phillips should receive workers’ comp benefits and that his fractured hip didn’t result from idiopathic causes.
(ConAgra Foods Inc. v. Jon Phillips, Missouri Court of Appeals Western Dist., No. WD80535, 9/5/17)