Roller-Dick vs. CentraCare Health System, A17-1816 (Minn. August 8, 2018):
ISSUE: ARISING OUT OF & IN THE COURSE OF
Procedural History of Case
In this case, Employee sustained an injury to her ankle after falling down a set of stairs located on the employer’s premises. The stairway had handrails on both sides as well as nonslip treads on the steps. However, Employee was not using the handrails because she was holding a personal plant from her desk as well as her handbag. She ended up falling on the stairs and injuring her ankle.
The matter proceeded to a Hearing. The sole issue before the compensation judge was whether her injury “arose out of” the employment. Relying on Dykhoff v. Xcel Energy, 840 N.W.2d 821 (Minn. 2013) and Kirchner v. County of Anoka, 339 N.W.2d 908 (Minn. 1983), the compensation judge held that the injury did not arise out of employment because Employee 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. The WCCA reversed and clarified that the issue is whether the stairs posed an “increased” as opposed to a “neutral” risk. The WCCA determined the stairs were inherently hazardous and not a neutral condition like the floor in Dykhoff.
The Minnesota Supreme Court recently affirmed the WCCA’s decision.
Minnesota Supreme Court’s Analysis
For an injury to “arise out of employment,” there must be some “causal connection” between the injury and the employment. The Court noted that the case turns on whether the Employee faced a hazard that originated on the premises as a part of the working environment. In analyzing the Kubis and Hohlt decisions, the Court affirmed the core principles underlying the conclusion in Dykhoff: “for an injury sustained on an employer’s premises to arise out of employment, the employee must have faced a hazard that originate on the premises as part of the working environment, thus supplying the requisite causal connection between the injury and employment.”
The Court compared this case to the Kirchner case, in which the Employee fell down stairs without using a handrail because persons ascending the staircase occupied the only side with the handrail. In this case, the Employee was not using the handrails as she was descending the stairs because she was carrying a plant as well as her handbag. The Court held that these circumstances created an increased risk that the Employee would fall and injure herself, thus satisfying the requisite causal connection between the workplace and her injury.
The Court goes on to explain that in workers’ compensation cases, it does not inquire whether the circumstances that led to an employee’s injury were attributable to either the employee or the employer. The Court notes that the dissent’s opinion that the fall is not compensable due to the Employee’s decision to not take advantage of the handrails returns the case to the negligence standard that the Workers’ Compensation Act expressly rejects. In a footnote, the majority opinion expressly states “we do not hold… that stairs themselves are workplace hazards exposing employees to an increased risk of injury. Rather, we conclude that the now-undisputed factual circumstances surrounding Roller-Dick’s injury… amount to an increased risk as a matter of law.”
Justice Gildea, in the dissenting opinion, states that there is no dispute that the Employee satisfies the “in the course of” requirement of the statute, but that because the Employee did not establish a causal connection between her injury and her employment, she does not meet the “arising out of” element. The dissent points out that by failing to require a connection to the Employee’s actual job duties, the majority opinion effectively does away with the “arising out of” element of the statute. The dissent felt that carrying a personal plant and not holding the handrail was not sufficient for an increased risk connected to the employment.
Why this case matters
Failure to use handrails on employer-maintained staircases can lead to compensable injuries, even if the employee’s reason for not holding the handrail is purely personal in nature (i.e. carrying personal items). Notably however, this decision explicitly declined to provide a bright-line rule that stairs are inherently hazardous. There likely will be more cases to come addressing this issue of employer staircases.