Archive for December, 2009

Idiopathic Injuries in the Workplace: Compensable?

In order for a workplace injury to be compensable, it must arise out of and in the course of employment.  An injury arises out of employment where there is some causal connection between the conditions under which the employee worked and the resulting injury.  For example, if a warehouse employee hurts his back while picking up a box, the injury likely arises out of his employment because the heavy lifting required by the job caused the injury.  But what if an employee is injured as a result of an “idiopathic” accident?  An idiopathic injury is an injury arising spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause or from a personal condition of the employee. 

Generally, idiopathic injuries are not compensable because they do not arise out of employment, even if they do occur in the course of employment.  However, the courts recognize a narrow exception when the employee comes into contact with some object specifically related to the employment because of the increased risk caused by the presence of the employment-related object.  For example, in U.S. Cas. Co. v. Richardson, 75 Ga.App. 496 (1947), an employee with an epileptic condition suffered a seizure and fell in such a way that he struck the sharp edge of a work table, and the court found the injury to be compensable because the table increased the risk of injury from an otherwise idiopathic fall.  The court also held that an idiopathic injury may be compensable if it occurs “on a stairway or into a machine or against anything except the bare floor, and especially if the fall is from a height, as the risk of injury is increased, or is a special danger of the employment.”  By contrast, in Prudential Bank v. Moore, 219 Ga.App. 847 (1996), the employee fainted and struck her head on the baseboard of a wall at her workplace, but the court rejected the argument that the baseboard was a work-related object.  The court held that a baseboard, just like a floor, is a mere structural hazard that the claimant is equally exposed to apart from her employment.  In a more recent case, Chaparral Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga.App. 339 (2004), the employee was walking at a rapid pace when she suddenly felt pain in her left knee, but there was no evidence that she slipped, tripped, or fell at the time of the injury, nor was there any evidence that she came into contact with any object.  The court reaffirmed the holding in Richardson and found that because the employee “did not fall from a height or strike any work-related object when she incurred the knee injury, there was no basis for concluding that the injury was compensable.”

Consequently, whether an idiopathic injury is compensable will depend on the facts  surrounding the accident: “Where the cause of the fall is personal to the worker (as a non-industrial heart attack, dizzy or epileptic spells, or any idiopathic condition) the fact that the floor is of rough cement instead of wood and hence more dangerous, is no ground for an award…But awards are upheld…if the fall is on a stairway or into a machine or against anything except the bare floor, and especially if the fall is from a height, as the risk of injury is increased, or is a special danger of the employment.”  Chaparral Boats, 269 Ga.App. at 347.

For more information, please contact Timothy Buckley III, Esq. at (404) 633-9230.


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