Margaret Jaafaru (“employee”) worked as a certified nursing assistant at a care facility operated by Cerenity Senior Care (“employer”). On February 5, 2018 she took her morning break and walked down the stairs to the first floor breakroom. The employee was three steps from reaching the first floor when she felt a pop and immediate pain in her left knee when descending from the landing. In order to proceed from a landing to asset of three steps before arriving at another landing and having to turn left to another set of steps. She did not fall and was not twisting or pivoting when she heard the pop. Photographs of the stairs that were entered into evidence at hearing show that the stairs were concrete, well lit, free of debris and defect and that the stairway had handrails.
The employee sought medical treatment, eventually seeing Dr. Yellin at Summit Orthopedics. He opined that the work injury aggravated her underlying osteoarthritis and degenerative meniscus tear; he noted that she had been asymptomatic prior to her injury. She underwent a partial meniscectomy and lateral meniscus debridement with Dr. Becker of Minneapolis Orthopedics. He provided a narrative report dated February 25, 2019 in which he opined that her symptoms following the February 5, 2018 work injury were due to new meniscus tearing and that her injury was consistent with an axial load and twisting injury while descending stairs leading to meniscus tearing and aggravation of her arthritic condition. Dr. William Simonet performed an independent medical examination of the employee at the request of the employer and insurer. He issued a report dated October 26, 2018 in which he opined that she did not suffer an injury on February 5, 2018 but instead experienced a symptomatic manifestation of an underlying pre-existing degenerative arthritic condition and meniscal tear. He stated that her condition was not causally related to the February 5, 2018 work injury. He noted in the history that he took from the employee that she felt a pop while walking down stairs and that she was not twisting.
The employee filed a claim petition seeking payment of medical expenses incurred in the treatment of her knee. The employer and insurer denied liability for the injury. The matter went to hearing before a compensation judge on March 7, 2019. In his Findings and Order, the judge denied the employee’s claims on the basis that the employer’s premises did not increase the employee’s risk of injury and he determined that the employee’s injury did not arise out of her employment.
The employee appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (“WCCA”). The WCCA noted that the compensation judge was to determine whether the employee’s injury was caused by her use of the stairs on her employer’s premises, and, if causation was established, whether her injury arose out of her employment. The WCCA found that the judge failed to consider whether the employee’s injury was caused by her use of the stairs on her employer’s premises. The WCCA noted that the Findings and Order did not reference the causation opinions of Dr. Becker or Dr. Simonet. The WCCA found that the judge did not evaluate and discuss medical evidence. The WCCA also found that the judge did not weigh, consider, and choose between opposing medical expert opinions. The WCCA found that to the extent that causation was mentioned in the compensation judge’s Findings and Order, his statements were not supported by evidence in the record. The WCCA also found that the compensation judge erred in his conclusion that the employee did not meet her burden to show that she was at an increased risk of injury. The WCCA stated that an employee’s use of stairs increases his or her risk of injury. Therefore, the WCCA vacated and remanded for further fact finding.
The WCCA believes that any use of stairs by an employee creates an increased risk of injury. Therefore, the WCCA is likely to find that any injury that occurs on stairs is likely to be found to have arisen out of employment. The Supreme Court has not ruled on this issue and this is still a gray area of law.