Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Court affirms worker had "unusual" strain from routine activities

A worker in his 50s tore three tendons in his right shoulder in 2009 after he lifted himself about two feet into his truck.  In a 9-2 decision, the majority of the Western District as a matter of first impression found under the new Act claimant established he had an “accident” even though he performed the normal duties of ascending his truck in a usual fashion.  Young v Boone Electric Cooperative, WD 76567, WD 76568 (W.D. Mo. App. 2015), 2015 Mo App. Lexis 407 (April 14, 2015).  The court affirmed benefits previously awarded by both the ALJ and the Commission.

This important case involved statutory interpretation to sort out what the legislature meant when it redefined “accident”.  Section 287.020.2 defines "accident" as "an unexpected traumatic event or unusual strain identifiable by time and place of occurrence and producing at the time objective symptoms of an injury caused by a specific event during a single work shift.”

The legislature did not define key terms in the definition of “accident” like “unusual” and told the courts to disregard everything they said in the past by abrogating prior judicial interpretations. Larson's treatise explains that "unusual" can have several different meanings depending on what is being compared.   The court noted it disagreed with the policy behind the reform and clearly decided to do something about it even though the statutory argument was never properly preserved in the brief.  The majority decouples the definition and finds proof of strain does not require proof of an "event."
Missouri case law before 1983 required proof of an unusual event.   The dissent concluded that reform brought the state back to a pre-1983 standard to prove unusual events before Wolfgeher  v. Wagner Cartage Service, Inc., 646 S.W.2d 781 (Mo. banc 1983).  

The majority found what matters is the fact that an injury occurred and not what preceded it.
 Claimant described an activity (lifting) that was identifiable by a time and place and causally related to his medical condition.  It did not reach the issue whether the facts also established an unusual traumatic event.   It rejected the defense that claimant must show an abnormal activity or abnormal performance of a normal activity.    The court relied upon Pattengill v Gen Motors Corp., 845 S.W.2d 630 (Mo. App. 1992) (a pre-reform case) which it finds to have analogous facts. 

 Claimant described an immediate onset of symptoms that his shoulder popped and he had difficulty moving his arm.   The concurring opinion found the majority used circular reasoning and that the legislature’s use of “unusual” meant something more than a worker experienced an unusual manifestation of symptoms after a usual activity.  

The case clearly ease the burden to prove accident.  Medical causation of injury by accident was not disputed in this case.   

The court also affirmed an award of compensation and found claimant had a compensable accident when he stepped on a frozen clod of dirt and fell.  Claimant in 2008 sprained his knee when his knee popped, and then it popped again when his co-workers helped him up. 

The employer asserted claimant did not have an accident to his knee because he did not prove the statutory requirement under 287.020.3(2)(b) that the injury “does not come from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of and unrelated to the employment in normal non-employment life.”

The employer asserts that claimant lives on a farm that farms have dirt, and he could have the same risk of falling over dirt away from the work.  The Court found that 287.020.3(2) (b) under strict construction does not allow a defense based of the same general hazard but only of the same hazard at the same location.  Alternatively, the Commission found no evidence of non-occupational “equal” exposure.   Claimant is required only to show that he was exposed to an unsafe condition as a function of his employment.  It is then the employer’s burden as an affirmative defense to show that he had equal exposure to the same place and the same hazard when he was not working such as being exposed to the same ice on the same lot or the same crack on the same street.  Duever v All Outdoor, 371 S.W.3d 863 (Mo. App. 2012).    This becomes an impossible defense when claimant when the claimant in his capacity as a non-worker would not have access to space within the employer’s exclusive control.   It becomes the employer’s defense to show equal exposure “to disprove the prima facie case already made by Young.” 

The court makes a semantic distinction of injuries that occur because someone is working and not merely while they are working.  

Atty:  Allen, Friel