Court Determines Circumstances Increased Risk of Injury While Descending Stairs

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently held an employee’s injury was causally connected to her workplace, and thereby arose out of employment, when the employee, while carrying a plant from her desk and not using the handrails, fell down workplace stairs.

Roller-Dick was leaving work when she fell down a set of stairs, fracturing her left ankle as a result. Immediately before she fell, she was not using the handrails. She was holding a plant from her desk in both hands, with her handbag hanging from the crook of her elbow. At the time, the stairs were a reasonable and consistent height, and they were free of debris, moisture, and defects. There were handrails on both sides.

The only issue before the compensation judge was whether Roller-Dick’s injury “arose out of” her employment. The compensation judge held that the injury did not arise out of employment because Roller-Dick failed to establish that the stairs were “more hazardous than stairs she might encounter in everyday life or that her work duties in some way increased her risk of falling as she descended them.” Because Roller-Dick could not identify a “work-related reason” why she was not using the handrails, the compensation judge rejected the argument that her injury arose out of her employment on the basis of that fact.

The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals reversed. The WCCA determined the compensation judge applied the incorrect test by requiring the employee to demonstrate some defect or additional hazard on the stairs. The correct test, the WCCA said, is whether the stairs posed an “increased” as opposed to a “neutral” risk. The WCCA determined that stairs in the workplace are inherently dangerous, and thus they are not a “neutral condition” like the floor at issue in Dykhoff.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the WCCA. In reaching its conclusion, the court reviewed post-Dykhoff decisions. The court noted that for an injury sustained on an employer’s premise to arise out of employment, the employee must have faced a hazard that originated on the premises as part of the working environment, thus supplying the requisite causal connection between the injury and employment.

Due to the circumstances on this particular day, Roller-Dick was not using the handrails, as she was carrying a plant from her desk that had been given to her by a coworker, as well as her handbag. These circumstances created an increased risk that Roller-Dick would fall and injure herself on the stairs, thus satisfying the requisite causal connection between the workplace and her injury.

The court stated that “[i]n workers’ compensation cases, we do not inquire into whether the circumstances that led to an employee’s injury were attributable to either the employee or employer. We simply ask whether there was a causal connection between the injury and the workplace. When the employee faces a hazard originating on the premises as part of the working environment, the requisite causal connection is satisfied.”

Please click here to download a copy of the Court’s decision.

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