Fall at Work – When Are Worker’s Compensation Benefits Paid For An Idiopathic Fall?

You are standing on a ladder at work and feel dizzy. The next thing you know, you are on the ground, your shoulder hurts, and co-workers are asking if you are okay. Is this a work injury? Will your employer pay your medical bills or income benefits if you lose any time?

Idiopathic falls are falls that are caused by a personal condition, like fainting because of low-blood pressure, or having a heart attack or a seizure. You would haven fallen no matter where you were when you had the episode. Your job did not cause the fall. Generally, worker's compensation benefits are not paid for idiopathic falls. However, if your job places you in a dangerous position (like on ladder) and increases the risk that you will be injured when you have that fall, you may recover benefits for lost time and medical bills. Other examples are falling onto a hot stove or hitting your head on a piece of machinery. See, United States Cas. Co. v. Richardson, 75 Ga.App. 496, 43 S.E.2d 793 (1947).

But you will not get benefits if you have an idiopathic fall and just hit your head on the floor or a baseboard, because there is no distinction between the floor at work and the floor anywhere else—wherever you were when you fell, there would have been a floor. Borden Foods Co. v. Dorsey, 112 Ga.App. 838, 146 S.E.2d 532 (Ga. App., 1965). Prudential Bank v. Moore, 219 Ga.App. 847, 467 S.E.2d 7 (Ga. App., 1996). Your injury must arise out of your employment and "fairly be traced to the employment as a contributing proximate cause… [it must not come] from a hazard to which the workmen would have been equally exposed apart from the employment. The causative danger must be peculiar to the work." Fried v. United States Fidelity & Guar. Co, 192 Ga. 492, 15 S.E.2d 704 (Ga., 1941). Therefore, the traveling salesman who slipped and fell on a wet street was subjected to the risk by the nature of his job, even though the risk of crossing a wet street was one shared by the public at large. Thornton v. Hartford Accident etc., Co. 198 Ga. 786, 32 S.E.2d 816 (1945). If a wall falls on you at work when a tornado roars through, make a claim if your job required you to be in the building when the tornado hit. Nat. Fire Ins. Co. v. Edwards, 152 Ga. App. 566, 263 S.E.2d 455 (1979). And if you break your leg as you are hurrying down the supermarket aisle where you work as a cashier, and you don't trip or slip or come into contact with an object, you may still get benefits, although the decision in Johnson v. Publix Supermarkets, 256 Ga. App. 540, 568 S.E.2d 827 (2002) has been severely criticized by subsequent courts.

But even if you can prove that your job put you in danger by requiring you to be where you were "when the peril struck," known as the 'positional risk doctrine', there must still be a causal connection between the injury and the job. So the worker who fell when her knee gave out on her employer's premises as she was hurrying to clock in was out of luck in Chapparal Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga. App. 339, 606 S. E.2d 567 (Ga. App. 2004). Likewise, a nurse who was injured when she stood and turned to get a cup of water for a patient and her knee gave out "was not exposed to any risk unique to her employment by standing and turning" and was not entitled to benefits. St. Joseph's Hospital v. Ward, 300 Ga. App. 845 (2009). And in Chambers v. Monroe County Board of Commrs., A14A0265 (Ct. App. July 16, 2014), the Court found that an employee who was injured when she stood up from her desk at the direction of her supervisor had an idiopathic fall that did not arise out of her employment. The Court deferred to the findings of fact of the Board, although the ALJ had found the injury compensable.

But in Harris v. Peach County Bd of Commrs., 296 Ga. App. 225 (2009), the Court found that "when a supervisor expressly directs an employee to undertake a specific physical activity, and the employee is then injured while carrying out that very activity, there is a sufficient causal connection between the conditions of employment and the resulting injury to warrant compensation, no matter how mundane the physical activity itself (i.e. walking or standing, etc.) may be." Clearly in order to have a successful claim for an injury from an idiopathic fall, it is important to connect the activity during which the injury occurred to the specific duties of the job.

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