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Barnes v. Charter 1 Realty – Idiopathic Exception to Workers’ Comp Coverage Clarified

In order for a workplace injury to be compensable, it has to arise out of and in the course of employment. This means there has to be some connection between the conditions under which employee was working the injury that resulted. feetwalking.jpg

Usually, if an injury is deemed idiopathic, or due to some internal weakness or breakdown, it’s not considered compensable by workers’ compensation because though it may arise in the course of employment, it does not arise out of employment.

An example might be a heart attack or seizure that occurs at work, but had nothing to do with work.

Some idiopathic injuries are compensable when there is evidence the work conditions somehow contributed to the severity of one’s injury. And exceptions are sometimes made, with many courts taking the stance that where possible, workers’ compensation law needs to be liberally construed in favor of the worker.

One example of this recently is the South Carolina Supreme Court decision in Barnes v. Charter 1 Realty, where a worker in a real estate office suffered a fall while walking to check the e-mail of a colleague.

According to court records, the worker was asked to check the colleague’s e-mail before noon. At 11:30 a.m., she left her desk and walked toward the office. However, as she did so, she stumbled and fell. She sustained serious injuries as a result, including a broken left leg, a broken left arm and a torn rotator cuff.

She filed a claim for workers’ compensation coverage. A hearing was held wherein worker testified she was hurrying to the office to check the e-mail and this caused her to fall.

However, the company introduced evidence indicating her husband “didn’t like the shoes she wore” and also had instructed her to pick up her feet more when she walked. Additionally, there was no finding of a deficiency or hazard in the carpet or surface where she was walking. No other explanation for the fall was given.

Based on this, the single workers’ compensation commissioner denied the claim for benefits because the fall was idiopathic. The appellate panel affirmed as did the court of appeals.

Worker then appealed to the state supreme court, which reversed. As our Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys note the court took issue with the fact that the appellate panel concluded the injury was idiopathic based solely on worker’s failure to point to any cause of the fall. There was nothing she tripped on, there was no bubbling or wrinkling of the carpet and there was no evidence her fall was caused by a work-related hazard.

An idiopathic fall, the court held, is one in which there is some internal health issue with the employee. There isn’t a default finding of idiopathic injury just because claimant is unable to point to a specific cause.

Defendant argued the fall was idiopathic because claimant tripped over her own feet and “this could have happened anywhere.” The court “soundly rejects” this assertion.

Further, the court ruled there was no indication claimant fainted, had a seizure or that her leg gave out. The fact that the hallway or carpet was not defective is irrelevant. Whether she tripped over her own feet or tripped simply because she was hurrying, neither amounts to a breakdown of internal weakness that would warrant a finding of idiopathy.

Because the fall was not idiopathic and arose out of and in the course of her employment, the court ruled, the injuries are compensable.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Barnes v. Charter 1 Realty, Jan. 14, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
US Bank Home Mortgage v. Schrecker – Afternoon Break Street Crossing Injury Not Compensable, Jan. 12, 2015, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog