May 02, 2011

Successive Falls on Stairs Deemed Noncompensable

May 02, 2011

Cathy Baldwin vs. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, et al. No. No. 4-10-0375WC

Cathy Baldwin sustained injuries while working on two separate dates, October 8 and November 19, 2006.  In her work as a security guard, she was assigned to “inside” work which consisted of walking throughout a building and around its perimeter.  On October 8, she was descending a metal staircase when she slipped and fell, landing on her left side.  She did not know what caused her foot to slip – there was no defect on the step or any liquid substance thereon.  She did state that just before the fall, she had walked through a freezer and moisture might have been on her shoes but admitted that she did not know what actually caused her foot to slip.

After seeking medical care, including a TENS unit and a cane, she was released to light duty work on November 16, 2006.  As of that date, she reported 90% improvement and being pain free.  She was discharged from care though told to continue home exercises.

Baldwin was again assigned to inside duty on November 19th when while walking up a flight of stairs her leg began to cramp; as she attempted to descend the stairs the cramping began ‘real bad’ and her leg gave out, causing her to fall.  Two physicians weighed in on the cause of the second fall, her examining physician stating she “was not 100%” from the injuries relating to the first fall at the time she returned to full duties, and her employer’s examining physician stating that the first fall did not cause or contribute to any condition that might have influenced the second fall and that no part of her initial injuries caused the leg to give way.

Baldwin filed two Applications for Adjustment of Claim which were consolidated for hearing and which were decided by separate decisions.  The arbitrator denied both claims, concluding that Baldwin failed to prove she sustained injuries arising out of and in the course of her employment.  The Commission affirmed the arbitrator unanimously.  The Circuit Court confirmed the decisions and Baldwin took the matter before the Appellate Court.

On appeal, Baldwin argued that the decisions of the Compensation Commission were against the manifest weight of the evidence.  The court noted that the issue at hand was the “arising out of” component of the burden of proof.  In order to determine whether Baldwin satisfied this element of her claim, the court categorized the risk to which she was exposed.  Risks to employees fall into three groups:

“(1) risks distinctly associated with the employment; (2) risks personal to the employee, such as idiopathic falls; and (3) neutral risks that have no particular employment or personal characteristics.”

With regard to the October 8th accident, Baldwin did not know what caused her to slip – – there was no defect in nor did she observe any liquid substance on the stairs.  Therefore, the court concluded that her fall was idiopathic in nature.  As regards the theory that moisture might have built up on her shoes causing the fall, the court felt this was pure conjecture.  Baldwin could not show more than a “mere possibility” that moisture may have built up on her shoes.  Simply put, she did not know what caused her to fall.

Because the first fall was unexplained, it was Baldwin’s burden to present evidence to support her claim that her fall was work related.  This she did not do.  Neither did she prove she was at greater risk of a fall on the staircase than was the general public.  By itself, the act of walking up a staircase does not expose an employee to a risk greater than that faced by the general public.  Therefore, the court affirmed the Commission, stating,

“For an injury caused by an unexplained fall to arise out of the employment, a claimant must present evidence which supports a reasonable inference that the fall stemmed from a risk related to the employment . . . an injury resulting from a neutral risk to which the general public is equally exposed does not arise out of the employment.”

Because Baldwin presented no evidence establishing the cause of her fall on October 8th, or that she was exposed to the risk of falling to a degree greater than that faced by the general public, the court affirmed the Compensation Commission’s decision denying benefits.

With regard to the November 19, 2006 accident, this occurred when while walking down stairs Baldwin began to feel cramping in her leg, causing her to fall.  The court characterized this fall as idiopathic in nature, that is, one resulting from an internal, personal origin.  Such a fall arises out of the employment only where employment conditions “significantly contribute to the injury by increasing the risk of falling or the effects of a fall.”  There being no evidence that the condition of the premises contributed to her fall or placed her in a position which increased the potential danger of the fall, and the condition of Baldwin’s left leg being personal to her, the fall was “purely” idiopathic and non-compensable.  Therefore, the claim for compensation for the injury sustained on November 19, 2006 was denied as well.

COMMENT: The decision in Baldwin seems so reasonable that one might forget that cases such as this are usually found compensable by the Commission.  The reason for this is that claimants will introduce evidence of the number of times per day or per shift the claimant ascends and descends stairs.  This will generally be sufficient to induce the Commission to conclude there was an “increased” risk of falling on stairs.  This notion has support from the courts, unfortunately.  Neither the Commission nor the courts have ever explained the basis for this judicial fiat.  Your editor knows of no case wherein scientific evidence was introduced which supported a claim that a member will be more prone to give way, for example, based on the number of times an individual ascended or descended a set of stairs.  Thus, although the court in Baldwin states the longstanding proposition that stairs, by their nature, are not inherently dangerous, the Commission and the courts will make them so based merely on the fact that an individual must use them several times a day.

This obliterates what was otherwise a bright line test for compensability and makes the Commission and the courts arbiters of speculation – how many times per day will it be necessary to ascend or descend a set of stairs, or to enter or exit an automobile before the quantity will be sufficient to constitute an “increased” risk which exposes the individual to injury to a degree greater than the general public?  For now, we are happy to report that the Appellate Court and the Commission have it right.  We will endeavor to remind the Commission and the Court that the result in Baldwin should be the norm and not the exception