A warehouse worker injured his knee stepping off a pallet. A doctor said the worker had a condition that predisposed his knee to problems, including his work injury. Will the employee get workers’ comp benefits?
Eric Bike worked for Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems Inc. in its Memphis, TN, warehouse. His job included checking that packing lists were correct, which was done by comparing them to tags on packages. Bike often had to step on and off pallets to check the tags.
One day as he stepped off a pallet, Bike’s kneecap moved out of and then back into place. Bike fell to the floor. The only injury he suffered was to his knee, and that injury wasn’t caused by the fall. It was caused by his kneecap moving.
Bike reported the injury but kept working despite being in pain. That night he couldn’t sleep because of the pain, and he went to an emergency room. Bike didn’t work for a short period of time.
Because of continuing pain, Bike eventually went to an orthopedic surgeon. An x-ray and MRI showed Bike had a “subluxation of the patella,” where the kneecap slides out of the groove in the thigh bone and then back into the groove.
The doctor told Bike he could choose conservative treatment including physical therapy or have surgery. Bike went with the conservative treatment, but some time later the pain was no better. The doctor eventually performed arthroscopic surgery on Bike’s knee.
The doctor said there were two potential causes of Bike’s injury
- an anatomical predisposition, and
- an incident where the knee is flexed, and all the forces on the kneecap drove it to move to the outside.
The doctor also said there was nothing in particular about Bike’s work environment that caused his kneecap to move out and then back into place – it could have happened anywhere.
However, the doctor agreed that the movement of Bike’s body as he stepped off the pallet with his knee in the position it was in at that time is what actually caused the kneecap to move.
Bike applied for workers’ comp benefits. J&J denied his claim. Bike appealed.
A trial court ruled for J&J, finding that the injury was idiopathic (it happened spontaneously) and that there wasn’t anything special about his work environment that contributed to the injury. In other words, the court ruled the injury could have happened anywhere because of Bike’s pre-existing condition, so he should not receive workers’ comp benefits.
Bike appealed the trial court’s decision, and a panel of Tennessee’s Supreme Court heard the case.
Work-related or not?
On appeal, Bike argued his employment at J&J required him to step on and off pallets on a regular basis, and this “special hazard” of his employment caused his injury.
J&J said his knee injury was simply due to an idiopathic condition.
The court noted that in a previous Tennessee case, it was decided that “an injury which occurs due to an idiopathic condition is compensable if an employment hazard causes or exacerbates the injury.”
The judges next turned to the doctor’s testimony. On the one hand, the doctor said Bike’s injury could have happened anywhere.
On the other hand, the doctor agreed that the movement of Bike’s body as he stepped off the pallet with his knee in the position it was in at that time is what caused his kneecap to move out of place. Stepping on and off pallets was work that Bike was required to do several times each workday.
For that reason, the court found his work task constituted a “special hazard” that contributed to his injury.
The supreme court panel overturned the trial court’s decision and remanded the case to determine workers’ comp benefits for Bike. J&J was ordered to pay court costs in the case.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(Eric Bike v. Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems Inc., Supreme Court of Tennessee Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, No. W2013-02728-SC-WCM-WC, 3/13/15)