In the recent case of Harris v. Peach County Board of Commissioners, the Georgia Court of Appeals rocked the proverbial Chaparral Boats when it classified an injury sustained when a Claimant bent over to pick up a personal item as a compensable work injury rather than an idiopathic injury.
In the recent case of Harris v. Peach County Board of Commissioners, the Georgia Court of Appeals rocked the proverbial Chaparral Boats when it classified an injury sustained when a Claimant bent over to pick up a personal item as a compensable work injury rather than an idiopathic injury. “Idiopathic” refers to a condition which is purely personal, limited to the individual, and without any origins in external factors. These injuries often arise in the course of employment but do not arise out of the employment. Though the court in Harrisattempted to distinguish the facts from the facts Chaparral Boats, the decision may be a sign that Administrative Law Judges (“ALJ”) could steer cases dealing with idiopathic injuries into rough waters and make it a bumpy ride for Employers/Insurers.
In recent years, the ALJ has been given wide latitude to determine whether an injury is purely idiopathic or whether it arose out of and in the course and scope of employment. On appeal, courts have been reluctant to reverse the ALJ’s decision; thus giving great deference to the ALJ and allowing them to change the tide as it relates to idiopathic injuries. The seminal case of an idiopathic injury, Davis v. Houston General Insurance Company, involved a nurse who injured her shoulder when she placed her arm through her coat sleeve as she was leaving work. The Chaparral Boats’ decision followed the course charted out in Davis, but the Harrisdecision may have changed that course.
In Chaparral Boats, the Claimant injured her left knee while walking across the Employer’s parking lot to clock in for work. Chaparral Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga. App. 339; 606 S.E.2d 567 (2004). The facts revealed that the Claimant walked at a quicker pace because she was running late. After feeling her knee pop, she stopped for a second and then limped into the building. Neither side presented any evidence that she slipped, tripped or fell at the time of the injury. The injury occurred by simply walking at a brisk pace. Id.
The court decided that although the Claimant may have been injured in the course of employment, the Employer denied the claim because the injury did not arise out of employment. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the injury to her knee could have occurred anywhere. The Court upheld the ALJ’s decision that no causal connection existed between her knee injury and her requirement of employment, therefore an idiopathic injury occurred. Id.
By contrast in 2009, the Court found a seemingly personal event to be work-related in Harris v. Peach County Board of Commissioners. 2009 Ga. App. LEXIS 114 (2009)
Ms. Harris, who weighed around three hundred pounds, worked as a custodian at the Peach County Courthouse. The evidence showed that her job duties included removing trash, cleaning floors and restrooms. On the date of her injury, Ms. Harris began cleaning one of the restrooms in the courthouse when she realized that she needed paper towels. After retrieving the paper towels, she encountered her supervisor, and they had a conversation. At some point during the conversation, Ms. Harris realized that she had misplaced her “diuretic” or water pill that had been in her pocket. Realizing that her personal pill had fallen to the floor, she bent over to pick it up. While bending over, she heard something pop in her left knee. Ultimately, she suffered an anterior dislocation of her knee that required two surgeries and kept her out of work. Id.
At the hearing, the ALJ determined that removing objects from the floor were part of her duties as a custodian. Therefore the injury arose out of and in the course of employment. The Appellate Division confirmedALJ’s findings. The Superior Court reversed finding that the injury occurred because of her weight, and as she dealt with her weight both on and off the job, her work did not cause her injuries. Id.
In examining the issues in this case, the Court of Appeals looked closely at the criteria for a work injury:: 1) that it arose out of the employment and 2) in the course of employment. The Harris case predominantly dealt with the former requirement, as the latter requirement was clearly met, since Ms. Harris injured her knee on the premises of her Employer during her normal working hours. In order to satisfy “out of the course of employment,” the Court looked to see if a person with a rational mind, upon considering all the circumstances, would find a causal connection between the work performed and the resulting injury. Likewise, an injury is not compensable and deemed outside the scope of employment when it “can not be fairly traced to the employment as a contributing proximate cause and which comes from a hazard to which the workman would have been equally exposed apart from the employment”. Id.
In Harris, the Court clung to the idea ALJ is the final arbiter of facts to decide whether an injury arose out of the employment. The Court deferred to the ALJ to determine whether the action that caused the injury constituted a function of employment. Id.
With such latitude given to the ALJ, it is apparent how the they can steer idiopathic injuries into troubling waters for Employers/Insurers. Based on the Harris decision it is not farfetched that an ALJ could find that an employee injured while walking across premises to clock in was performing her job functions, or that an employee who injured herself while putting on a coat could sustain a compensable injury because she was required to wear the uniform for work. Finding that everyday activities such as bending over to pick up personal belongings are “out of the course of employment” places too much control in the hands of the ALJ to navigate the case as he or she feels fit. The Harris decision signifies that past decisions such Davis and Chaparral Boatsmay struggle to stay afloat.
In Georgia, the ALJ must discern the difference between cause in fact and proximate cause. Simply put, determinations of cause-in-fact come down to science. With any injury, a person can list numerous causes of the injury. Take for example, a delivery driver who is involved in an automobile accident while making a delivery and look at the possible causes of the accident. When just dealing with cause in fact, one could list several causes his accident – the other driver, the poor tires, the poor breaks, or the sun being in his eyes.
Since causes-in-fact can be numerous, the ALJ must draw a line as to where proximate cause lies. Similar to how cause in fact comes down to science, it appears proximate cause comes down to policy and who society should hold accountable for the injuries. It appears that the Harris Court may have opened up the flood gates for a whole new wave of cases. By expanding proximate cause to include instances where a employee bends over to pick up a personal belonging, it hold the Employer/Insurer accountable for injuries that could technically have occurred anywhere.
With such power vested in the ALJ, we have to wonder what the future holds for idiopathic injuries. Will more cases turn-out like Harris rather than like Chaparral Boats? Will more injuries from everyday activities like bending over to pick something up be deemed work related? All we know is these cases are intensely fact-specific, and we have an extra burden to showcase any distinctions to convince an ALJ that the injury did not occur “out of employment”.