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Workers' Compensation

Missouri: Supreme Court Reverses Comp Benefits From Making Coffee

Claimant was injured in an office kitchen after making coffee and fell when she turned to put coffee grounds into the trash eventually resulting in surgery to her hip and pelvis.  The Supreme Court in Johme v St. John's Mercy Healthcare, No. SC 92113 (May 29, 2012), 2012 Mo Lexis 101  reversed an award of benefits, noting the claimant failed to introduce sufficient evidence that she had a greater hazard of slipping and falling compared to non-employment life.

The Supreme Court found the Commission did not fully analyze whether the hazard arose out of employment.  The Commission found a work nexus was sufficient, in this case, making coffee, and there was no need to introduce evidence on equal exposure.  Claimant made coffee at work and not at home.  The commission concluded that analysis of the hazard prong only applied if the risk itself is unrelated to employment.

The court notes the only issue it considered is how to interpret the second prong of hazard.  It concludes the hazard analysis must consider the risk of injury and not just the activity performed.  Claimant noted that her hazard of injury from making coffee was greater at work because she did not make coffee at home.  The Supreme Court indicated that there was no finding that "making coffee" caused the injury; it was claimant's slip and twist that caused the injury.  The court found the Commission erred assessing whether making coffee was incidental to her employment and not whether the activity itself, turning, twisting and falling off her shoe had a causal connection to her work activity.  Claimant offered no evidence whether or not she was equally at risk of turning, twisting or falling out of her shoe away from work.   An injury that occurred at work, even in the course of employment, did not establish that it arose out of her employment.

The long-anticipated decision leaves several issues unresolved.

The claimant's burden of proof in disputed cases appears to require some evidence that the work created a greater hazard or risk of injury. Testimony of "what" a claimant did is irrelevant to this issue unless the "what" deals with the risk of injury.  The court indicates how the hazard test applies but not when it always applies or why it applies in these circumstances.

 In this case, claimant offered no evidence of hazards of the floor or irregularities.  Presumably, if claimant had burned herself pouring coffee and then fell backwards the exposure to "hot" coffee may have been a greater hazard to someone who does not drink hot liquids at home.   This may create greater emphasis for ergonomic analysis whether "unsafe" or poorly designed work stations inherently create different risks of hazard than a person's home.

The court stated its review was limited strictly to the second prong analyzing application of assessing hazard of non-employment life.  The commission had based its decision in part on the personal comfort doctrine.  The Supreme Court did not indicate it was asked to address whether personal comfort doctrine survived statutory reform but noted only that earlier case law was abrogated in statutory reform.

The third issue left unclear whether Pile v Lake Regional Health Systems, 321 S.W.3d 463 (Mo. App. 2010), questioned by Judge Romines, in the original eastern district decision "does not logically interpret the statute."  While Johme clearly establishes Miller v. Mo. Highway & Transp. Comm'n, 287 S.W.3d 671, 672 (Mo. banc 2009) as the proper standard, it does not reverse Pile as the improper standard either. By implication, its mandate to consider of the hazard prong suggests a greater evidentiary burden than the Commission felt necessary under Pile.

Source: Martin Klug, Huck, Howe & Tobin. Read Martin Klug's Mo. Workers' Comp Alerts.

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