Hohlt v. University of Minnesota, et. al

Hohlt v. University of Minnesota, et. al, A16-0349 (Minn.) June 28, 2017

Factual and Procedural Posture

On December 30, 2013, Josephine Hohlt, (“Employee”) drove to her job as a painter at the University of Minnesota.  She parked at the Oak Street ramp, a ramp owned and operated by the University.  She usually parked there because it was less expensive than other ramps in the area and was close to the buildings that she typically worked in.  There are four blocks between the building that she worked in on the date of injury and the Oak Street ramp.  The City of Minneapolis owns the sidewalk, the University as an adjacent property owner has the responsibility to maintain it, including keeping it clear of snow and ice.  See Minneapolis, Minn., Code of Ordinances § 445.20 (2016).

The Employee finished her work early, and “punched out” at 10:30 p.m.  It was sleeting and snowing that night.  The Employee and her coworkers reached the intersection of Oak Street and Delaware Street and waited for the traffic light to indicate they could cross the street.  When the light changed, the Employee walked forward onto the sidewalk’s curb ramp, slipped on ice, and fell.  She was helped into a coworker’s car and taken to a nearby emergency room.  She had broken her hip, which failed to heal properly, and she underwent hip replacement surgery about a year later.  Two months later, she returned to her job as a painter without restrictions.

The Employee filed a claim petition for workers’ compensation benefits.  A compensation judge held a hearing on the claim; prior to the hearing, the parties stipulated that all medical expenses at issue were reasonable and necessary and that her period of temporary total disability lasted from December 31, 2013 to December 11, 2014.  The issues at hearing were whether her injury arose out of her employment and were in the course of her employment as required under Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1 (2016).  The compensation judge concluded that her injury did not “arise out of” her employment because “the hazard faced by the employee of falling on winter ice or snow was not unlike the hazard faced by the general public.”  The Employee and the University both appealed.

The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (“WCCA”) unanimously reversed the compensation judge’s “arising out of” conclusion and determined that the Employee was on the premises of the employer when she was injured because she had recently punched out and was walking a short distance on the most direct route to a parking ramp owned and operated by her employer.  The WCCA also concluded that the injury arose out of her employment because her presence on the employer’s premises was not due to her membership of the general public but because of her employment by the University.

The University appealed, arguing that the WCCA erred as a matter of law by failing to adhere to Dykoff’s rule that the “arising out of” and “in the course of” tests in the statute must be applied independently.

Majority Opinion

The majority opinion affirmed the WCCA’s conclusion that the Employee’s injury arose out of and in the course of her employment.  Minn. Stat. § 176.021 has both an “arising out of” and an “in the course of” requirement, that are distinct and each must be met for an injury to be compensable.  Dykoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826.

Arising Out of Employment

For an injury to arise out of employment, a causal connection must exist between the injury and employment.  See Gibberd v. Control Data Corp., 424 N.W.2d 776, at 780.  A causal connection exists if the employment exposes the employee to a hazard which originates on the premises as a part of the working environment, or peculiarly exposes the employee to an external hazard hereby he is subjected to a different and a greater risk than if the employee had been pursuing ordinary personal affairs.  Dykoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826.  When the employment creates a special hazard from which the injury comes, there is a casual relationship between employment and the injury.  Id.

The Supreme Court held that the Employee’s injury arose out of her employment.  It stated that a causal connection exists because her employment exposed her to a hazard that originated on the premises as part of the working environment; the hazard was the University-maintained sidewalk that the Employee was using to move from one part of her employer’s premises to another.  The Court stated that she was on the sidewalk because of her employment as a painter rather than as a member of the general public, therefore there was a causal connection and thus the “arising out of” requirement was satisfied.  The Court noted the common exception to the premises requirement under which an injury sustained by an employee while traveling between two parts of his employer’s premises is held to arise out of and in the course of his employment.  Satack v. State Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 275 N.W.2d 556, 558.  The Court also differentiated this case from Dykhoff on the grounds that the employee’s injury in Dykhoff was unexplained while the Employee’s injury here was fully explained by the icy sidewalk that created an increased risk of injury.

Course of Employment

An employee is in the course of employment while providing services to the employer and also for “a reasonable period beyond working hours if an employee is engaging in activities reasonably incidental to employment” Starrett v. Pier Foundry, 488 N.W.2d 273, 274 (Minn. 1992).  “As a general rule, injuries suffered by an employee while commuting to and from work are not compensable.”  Swanson v. Fairway Foods, 439 N.W.2d 722, 724 (Minn. 1989).  On the other hand, an injury that occurs while the employee is in an employer-owned or –operated parking facility may be compensable.  See Foley v. Honeywell, Inc., 488 N.W.2d 268, at 272-73.

The Court determined that the Employee slipped and fell shortly after leaving work, a reasonable period beyond actual working hours.  Her direct walk to her car, four blocks away, was reasonably incidental to employment.  Lastly, she sustained the injury after leaving work at a University building and walking directly on the University-maintained sidewalk to the University’s parking ramp.  The Court held that the Employee was in the course of her employment when she was injured.


Justices Anderson and Halbrooks dissented based upon the following reasons.

Arising Out of Employment

The Employee admitted that she fell on a public sidewalk and that “any member of the general public” was “equally at risk” for falling on the same sidewalk due to the same conditions that the Employee faced.  She also admitted that the risk of falling was not “unique or peculiar” to her job as a painter, that the risk was no greater than if she had been walking on the sidewalk in pursuit of personal activities, and that she was not performing any work while walking to the Oak Street ramp.  She further acknowledged that the icy conditions did not “originate with [her] job as a painter.”  Therefore, there was no increased risk or special hazard.

The dissent also stated that the Court had previously defined the increased risk posed by a hazard as requiring that the employment “peculiarly expose[] the employee to an external hazard whereby he is subjected to a different and greater risk than if he had been pursuing his ordinary personal affairs.”  Dykhoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826.  In the dissenter’s opinion, the majority opinion took the “increased” out of the risk determination and noted that in Satack the Court had already held that the hazard of falling on ice on a public sidewalk is not an increased risk.

The dissent noted that the location of the Employee’s car and the path that she took to get to the car were entirely of her own choosing and that anyone could park in the Oak Street ramp.  The dissent also noted that her injury resulted in a slip and fall on an icy sidewalk outside of the ramp to which she was headed.

Course of Employment

The requirement that an injury occur in the course of employment refers to the time, place, and circumstances of the incident causing the injury.  Gibberd, at 780.  The place and circumstances of the Employee’s injury preclude compensation.  She was four blocks from the building in which she worked; the Court has never awarded compensation for an injury that occurred on the way to a parking lot this far from the workplace.  She was not required to park in that specific location and chose it based upon the location and price.  Together, all of the cases suggest that the circumstances surrounding an injury that occurs in or near a parking facility matter.

The dissent argues that fundamentally, this is a workers’ compensation “coming and going” dispute.  Ordinarily, injuries that occur between a workplace and the employee’s home are not compensable.  McConville v. City of St. Paul, 528 N.W.2d 230, 231 (Minn. 1995).  In this case, the Employee had punched out of work, was not performing any work duties, was walking on a public sidewalk and was simply going home.  The Employee failed to show that her injury was in the course of her employment.