April 02, 2011

Appellate Court Adopts “Street Risk” Doctrine

April 02, 2011

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission No. 1-09-2546WC

Ruth Lundquist was employed by the Water Reclamation District as an accounting clerk.  Part of her duties included depositing checks to the bank located approximately 1.5 blocks southeast of the District’s office.  She performed this task two or three times per week.  While walking toward the bank on November 9, 2005, she stumbled walking up an inclined driveway that had a “dip” of about six inches.  She testified that she tripped and lost her footing on the “dip” and fell forward, breaking her fall with her hands and fracturing both wrists.

The arbitrator ruled against Lundquist, finding that her employment did not expose her to a risk of injury greater than that faced by the general public.  The Commission, with one dissent, reversed the arbitrator, relying on the fact that she was performing a required task.  Because she was regularly required to traverse the streets for her employer, she was exposed to the risk of the “dip” in the driveway with greater frequency than were members of the general public.  Therefore, the Commission awarded TTD and PPD benefits as well as medical bills.

On appeal, the court noted that Lundquist was performing a work‑related task and thus was in the course of her employment at the time of the injury.  But the risk of falling on the “dip” in the driveway was due neither to a personal cause nor was it distinctly associated with her employment.  Therefore, the court found the risk of injury from a fall while traversing a public sidewalk and commercial driveway “neutral” in nature, and explained:

Injuries resulting from a neutral risk generally do not arise out of the employment and are compensable only where the employee is exposed to the risk to a degree greater than the general public…such an increased risk may be qualitative or quantitative… 

Under the ‘street risk’ doctrine, where the evidence establishes that the claimant’s job requires that she be on the street to perform the duties of her employment, the risks of the street become…risks of the employment…In such a circumstance, it is presumed that the Claimant is exposed to risks of accidents in the street to a greater degree than if she had not been employed in that capacity…

Because the evidence established that Lundquist was required to traverse public streets and sidewalks to make bank deposits:

the hazards inherent in the use of the street became risks of her employment.  A six‑inch ‘dip’ in a commercial driveway is a street hazard, and, though the risk of tripping and falling on such a hazard is a risk faced by the public at large, it was a risk to which the claimant, by virtue of her employment, was exposed to a greater degree than the general public.” (emphasis added)

The court added that Lundquist would also have been able to meet the burden of showing that she faced an increased risk because she was required to use the public way two or three times per week.  Based on those facts, the Commission could find that she was exposed to the risk of the “dip” in the driveway to a greater frequency than members of the general public.

Justice Holdridge concurred with the Commission finding that by virtue of the number of times Lundquist was exposed to the sidewalk risk she was exposed to a greater degree of injury than the general public, and he would go no further with analysis of the “street risk” doctrine.  Justice Holdridge found “particularly unappealing” the concept that merely because one’s employment places her on the street there is a presumption that all hazards of the street become hazards of employment.

Comment:  Justice Holdridge points to what has become a trend of the Appellate Court to expand the boundaries of compensability.  The concurrence noted that the Commission found the case compensable on much narrower grounds than did the court.  There was no reason to expand compensability for other such cases by reference to the “street risk” doctrine. The concurrence considers the result here the equivalent to making anyone whose employment places them on the public streets a “traveling employee” entitled to compensation merely because the employment places them there.  Justice Holdridge is arguing for judicial restraint.  We find it difficult not to concur.