October 16, 2012
Workers' compensation: Did teacher’s injury arise 'out of' her employment?

A teacher claimed she was entitled to disability pay after sustaining a hip injury. However, a court had to determine whether her injury was work-related.

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What happened. While employed as a special education teacher for the Arlington County Schools on June 18, 2009, “Constance” fell in the hallway outside her classroom at approximately 9:30 a.m. She had previously had both hips replaced, and on July 27, 2009, she received a total right hip replacement—as a result, she claims, of her fall in June.

In October 2009, she filed a claim with the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, seeking medical benefits and temporary total disability compensation retroactive to June 18, 2009, and continuing.

To qualify for benefits under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, she had to prove that she “suffered an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of the employment.”

Neither party contested that Constance’s injury occurred “in the course of” her employment. However, a deputy commissioner, and later the full commission, had to determine whether the injury arose “out of” the course of her employment (i.e., whether it was work-related).

After a hearing, the deputy commissioner concluded that Constance’s injury did not arise out of her employment and denied her request for benefits. “She claims here that her foot caught on a desk in the hallway and that the area between the desks and boxes was tight, making it difficult to maneuver around them,” the deputy commissioner said, noting that she did not make such a statement previously in her recorded statement to her employer’s representative.

“In fact, she stated that there was enough room for a normal person to pass through the hallway. Moreover, she clearly stated that she did not know what caused her to fall. Her attempt now to claim otherwise is simply not persuasive in light of all the other evidence.”

The full commission affirmed, saying, “At the hearing, … [Constance] identified a causative hazard, i.e., catching her foot on a desk as she maneuvered through the atypically crowded hallway. However, these statements are simply not persuasive given the evidence as a whole in the case. Several co-workers testified to assisting the claimant immediately after the fall. No one mentioned hearing that the claimant contacted any objects in the hallway.... Additionally, the medical record failed to convincingly substantiate the claimant’s description of her foot catching on a desk.

“Lastly, and most significantly, the claimant candidly testified during her recorded statement [to her employer’s representative] that she did not know the cause of her fall.… [S]he never stated that she somehow impacted, struck or tripped on a desk and that this activity caused her fall. She merely described the existence of the items in the hallway, and in fact, discounted that she had difficulty walking between the items.”

Constance appealed to the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

What the court said. The appeals court affirmed the commission’s findings, saying the record “contains multiple varying explanations” that Constance gave for her fall. Those explanations included that she fell after her right foot caught on a desk outside her classroom, that she tripped, and that her shoes stuck to the floor at the time of her fall.

The court also said she “gave numerous inconsistent reasons for her fall to her treating physicians” and pointed out that she told the commission that she fell when her right foot caught on a desk after apparently telling one of her doctors that she might have tripped on her left foot.

After reviewing the record on appeal, the court said, “[I]t is clear that the commission considered claimant’s entire medical record related to her fall, as well as the testimony of witnesses, including claimant’s recorded statement to [her] employer’s representative. We cannot say that the commission erred in finding claimant’s injuries did not arise out of her employment with [her] employer.” Rodrigues v. Arlington County Schools et al., Court of Appeals of Virginia, Record No. 1512-11-2 (5/1/12).

Point to remember: Whenever an injury occurs at work, be sure to document the injured worker’s version of events, input from any coworkers who witnessed the accident, and whether any hazards existed in the area.

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