Tennessee Supreme Court Sides with Warehouse Worker in Fall Case

The Tennessee Supreme Court reached a decision just this month regarding an issue being discussed across the country in relation to workers’ compensation cases: idiopathic falls.

In the case, Bike v. Johnson & Johnson, Tenn. Sup. Ct. (2014), the employee was working in the warehouse for his employer, Johnson & Johnson, which required him to step onto and off of pallets, in order to check paperwork against various boxes and other identifying items. On one such occasion, the employee stepped off of a pallet in such a way that his knee cap moved out of and back into place, causing him to fall and feel pain instantly. He sought treatment with the plant nurse, and after returning home, eventually went to an emergency room for treatment, where x-rays were taken and medication was prescribed.

After returning to work, and seeking treatment with a doctor who was often on-site, he was given pain medications and requested a referral to meet with a surgeon, but his employer denied the request. Thus, the employee sought a consultation with a different surgeon, who suspected that the employee had suffered a subluxation of the kneecap, and ordered an MRI, which eventually confirmed his suspicions. The employee attempted a conservative treatment course of bracing his knee but eventually underwent surgery to correct the problem.

At trial, the doctor who performed the surgery testified regarding the employee’s knees and his opinion that the underlying anatomy was predisposed to this type of injury. However, he also stated that the injury was due to the way in which the employee stepped down off of the pallet.

The trial court found that the employee’s injury was idiopathic, not attributable to any particular hazard in the workplace, and thus denied his claim for workers’ compensation benefits. The employee appealed.

In order to recover workers’ compensation benefit, as defined in Tennessee Code Annotated section 50-6-102(12), the injury must “aris[e] out of and in the course of employment.” An injury arises out of employment when “there is a causal connection between the condition under which the work is required to be performed and the resulting injury.”

Under Tennessee law, the mere fact that an injury occurs at the workplace does not make it compensable; there must be some added causal relationship. On appeal, the employee argued that it was the stepping on and off of pallets that led to the injury. The employer argued that the evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the injury was idiopathic to the employee, and that there was no special work hazard that led to the incident.

Regarding idiopathic injuries, the court stated the relevant standard that, “[A]n injury which occurs due to an idiopathic condition is compensable if an employment hazard causes or exacerbates the injury.”

The court pointed out that the injury was not caused by the fall itself, but rather by the kneecap moving in and out of place. Therefore, the key was to determine whether the injury was caused solely by the idiopathic nature of the employee’s kneecaps, rather than some special hazard related to his employment.

The court found that the injury was due both to the underlying condition and the stepping motion, as the doctor testified, it was the right condition “at the right time.” Thus, it was the movement, done repeatedly throughout his workday that actually caused the employee to be in the particular position that made it vulnerable to slipping out of place, resulting in the injury. This constituted a “special hazard incident to employment,” and therefore arose out of his employment.

Thus, the decision was reversed and remanded to the trial court for a decision consistent with the findings.

The accident attorneys at MHPS are dedicated to representing Nashville residents who have been hurt due to someone else’s negligent actions. We serve injured individuals in and around Davidson and Williamson Counties, including Brentwood, Bellevue, and Hermitage. Our skilled attorneys will take the time to learn about you and your case, and we will vigorously pursue your right to compensation. Contact us today to discuss your case.

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