Facts Matter: Another Illinois WC Stair Case

Accidents that involve stairs are a common occurrence for employers and we will continue to highlight interesting cases that can be used as a framework for disputing these types of accidents, where appropriate. For example, Williams v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2016 Ill. App. 4th 150126 (Ill. App. Ct. 2016), provides an excellent summary of the facts and analysis that is needed when evaluating these cases.

The petitioner, who worked as a court administrator, parked her car in the employee parking lot and intended to walk into the south entrance. As she started walking, a judge,walking up the north steps carrying a microwave oven, said to the petitioner “Hey, come on in here, you don’t have to walk around.” The north entrance was locked at all times and is only used as an exit. The petitioner normally did not usually use that entrance to access the building. The petitioner was initially hesitant but decided to enter into the building in the north entrance. She testified that she walked in a hurried fashion towards the door because the judge and a security guard were standing there holding the door open and she did not want to slow them down.

As you might have guessed (this is workers’ compensation), the petitioner fell ascending the stairs and suffered a broken left hip. She subsequently underwent a closed reduction and percutaneous pinning of her left hip fracture. The petitioner would later undergo a left total hip arthroplasty with removal of deep hardware to treat avascular necrosis that had developed in the left hip.

At Arbitration, the arbitrator awarded benefits to the petitioner finding that her accident arose out of and in the course of her employment. The decision was reversed by the Commission. The Commission decision was affirmed by the circuit court judge and finally affirmed in a split decision by the Appellate Court.

The petitioner argued that the accident arose of her employment as she was exposed to an increased risk as compared to the general public under two alternative theories: she ascended the steps in a hurried fashion or there was a defect int he stairs. The Appellate court did not find either argument persuasive. The Court first laid out the analysis that is needed in these situations. It wrote that to determine whether a claimant’s injury arose of her employment, we must first determine the type of risk to which she was exposed. There are three categories of risk to which an employee may be exposed:

1) risks that are distinctly associated with one’s employment;

(2) risks that are personal to the employee, such as idiopathic falls; and,

(3) neutral risks that have no particular employment or personal characteristics,such as those that the general public is commonly exposed.

The court noted that the act of walking up a staircase by itself does not expose an employee to a risk greater than that faced by the general public. As a neutral risk, the petitioner bore the burden of showing that she was exposed to an increased risk of either a qualitative nature (some aspect of her employment contributed to the risk) or a quantitative nature (she was exposed to a common risk more frequently than the general public).

The Court found that the petitioner failed in both aspects. Though she testified that she walked up the stairs in a hurried fashion, she did not present any evidence that the decision to do so was related in any way to her employment. Instead,it was her decision to accept the invitation and walk in a quick manner. In addition, the Court found that the petitioner did not present any evidence that a defect in the stairs caused the fall, noting that the petitioner testified that she did not know why she fell.

***An astute reader will notice that it does not appear that the petitioner argued, nor did the Court address, whether the petitioner was exposed to an increased risk based upon the petitioner facing the risk more frequently than the general public. According to the opinion, the petitioner worked for the respondent for 22 years and a regular part of her duties included leaving the courthouse to mail out items. With the limited information gleaned from the opinion, we cannot answer that question, but just wanted to point it out to keep in mind when analyzing similar cases.  

Finally, we like to look at the final scorecard. With the same set of facts, the arbitrator and 2 appellate judges opined that she was exposed to an increased risk, while 3 Commissioners, 1 circuit court judge, and 3 appellate court judges found that the petitioner was not exposed to an increased risk when she walked hurriedly up the stairs to a nice judge holding the door open for her as he held on to his microwave oven.

Thanks again to Frank Johnston for the review of an issue which has, and will continue, to affect our clients and employers in Illinois.  Frank handles both workers’ compensation and civil matters out of the firm’s Champaign office.

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