Georgia Once Again Has to Find its Way Out of the Idiopathic Swamp
Chambers v. Monroe County Board of Commissioners
(08/25/2014, Georgia Court of Appeals)
The Georgia Court of Appeals was again faced with an issue of whether or not a specific condition was compensable or "idiopathic." The case reached the Court of Appeals following a determination by the Appellate Division of the Workers' Compensation Board that Ms. Chambers' injury was not compensable because it did not arise out of her employment as a firefighter/EMT.
After returning to the fire station from a call, Chambers sat down at a desk to complete some paperwork, and then remained at the desk watching television. Her supervisor requested that she get up from the desk so he could use it, and when Chambers rose from her chair, she felt and heard a "pop" in her left knee. The knee ultimately required surgery, and will likely need to be replaced. The ALJ found the injury compensable on the basis that Chambers was required to be in the location where she was injured, and was injured following her supervisor's instructions to get up from the chair. The Appellate Division vacated the ALJ's award because Chambers failed to show a causal connection between her employment and her injury.
Ms. Chambers testified she did not get up from her chair in an unusual manner, and she offered no evidence to establish a causal connection between her employment and the injury. There was no evidence the chair or desk configuration caused her to lose her balance or she had to strain to reach a standing position, that there was a work-related emergency such as a fire alarm that caused her to jump up out of the chair in a hurried manner, or that she came into contact with any object or hazard prior to her injury.
In Georgia where the injury would have occurred regardless of whether the employee is required to be located, and results from a risk to which the employee would have been equally exposed apart from any condition of employment, there is no basis for finding a causal connection between the employment and the injury, and no basis for compensation under the Positional Risk Doctrine. The general rule still applies that the injury does not arise out of the employment where the causative danger is not "peculiar to the work" in a way that would causally connect the employment to the injury.
This case reflects the difficulty in determining whether or not a particular injury is "idiopathic" or "arises out of employment." In the case of Chaparral Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga. App. 339, 606 S.E.2d 567 (2004), the claimant was walking "at a quicker than normal pace" across her employer's parking lot to get to work on time when she "felt popping and pain in her left knee." The ALJ found that Heath's knee injury was not the result of the slip, trip, fall, or contact with any object, and there was no evidence Heath claimed any particular cause. The evidence showed that when the knee injury occurred, Heath was simply walking at a pace of her own choosing. In that instance, the accident was found not to be compensable. In St. Joseph's Hospital v. Ward, 300 Ga. App. 845, 686 S.E.2d 443 (2009), a nurse injured her knee when she turned to get a cup of water for a patient. The court found the employee was not exposed to any risk unique to her employment by standing and turning, and by turning, she did not come into contact with any object or hazard of employment.
In support of her assertion her injury was compensable, Chambers relied almost exclusively upon Harris v. Peach County Board of Commissioners, 296 Ga. App. 225, 674 S.E.2d 36 (2009). In Harris, the claimant, a custodian, dropped a pill on the floor. She injured her knee when she bent over to pick it up after her supervisor pointed it out to her. The Board concluded that picking up objects from the floor was a part of the claimant's duties as a custodian. The appellate court concluded the operative question was whether the claimant performed the activity in furtherance of her job duties, and this was a question of fact to be decided by the fact finder at the administrative level. The injury was held to be compensable.
The distinctions made in these cited cases are not so clear as to provide a “bright line” test for knowing whether a fact finder will conclude the injury arose out of employment or was in fact “idiopathic.” In many instances, this can be an extremely close call, and it is not always clear which way a judge will rule on a specific case. If employers and insurers are deciding whether or not to accept a particular injury as compensable, they will often have to make that decision without knowing all the facts or the exact mechanism of injury. That is what makes these idiopathic cases so difficult. While ALJs and the courts try to establish a clear path for employees, employers and carriers in dealing with such claims, one must be careful when entering that swamp.
About The Author:
Rayford H. Taylor is an “AV” rated lawyer by Martindale-Hubbell. He is a member of The Florida Bar and the State Bar of Georgia, and practices in the areas of administrative and governmental law, appellate practice, legislative consultation, and workers' compensation.He has practiced law in Georgia since 2002 and in Florida since 1974. Prior to entering the private practice of law, he was affiliated with The Florida Bar for more than 12 years where he served as its general counsel and legislative counsel.
His full bio is available here.