The employee sustained a left ankle fracture after falling down the stairs while leaving work. The stairway she was using was not usually accessible to the public, had railings on both sides, and non-slip treads. The employee was not using the handrails as she was carrying a plant with both hands and had a handbag hanging on her arm.
When this case was heard before a compensation judge, the only issue was whether her injury “arose out of” her employment. The compensation judge found the injury did not arise out of the employee’s employment and denied the claim. On appeal to the WCCA, the compensation judge’s decision was reversed. The WCCA found that stairs in the workplace are inherently hazardous and thus the stairs along increased this employee’s risk of injury; thus, her injury arose out of her employment.
The employer and insurer sought appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court and again, the only issue on appeal was whether this employee’s injury arose out of her employment. It is worth noting that at the hearing level, the employee made the argument that she thought the rubber sole of her shoe stuck to the non-slip treads on the stairs, but the compensation judge rejected that argument. The employee did not pursue that argument on appeal and thus, the facts surrounding the fall were undisputed before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court reiterated that “[f]or an injury to ‘arise out of employment,’ there must be some ‘causal connection’ between the injury and the employment.” Citing Dykhoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826. They then explained that such the causal connection is met when “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 whereby he is subjected to a different and greater risk than if he had been pursuing his ordinary personal affairs.” Quoting Nelson v. City of St. Paul, 81 N.W.2d 272, 275 (Minn. 1957). The employee did not argue there was any “external hazard” so the Supreme Court was analyzing only whether the employee “faced a hazard that originated on the premises as a part of the working environment.”
The Supreme Court then broke down the two categories of “hazards” that were discussed in Dykhoff: “special hazards” created by employment, which were essentially unsafe conditions and “neutral conditions” which weren’t inherently dangerous or risky but “something about [them] … increases the employee’s exposure to injury.” Citing Dykhoff. The latter is at issue here and is what has come to be referred to as the “increased-risk test.”
The Supreme Court analogized this case with Kirchner where an employee fell down the stairs and the injury was found to be compensable because of the circumstances surrounding the employee’s use of the stairs. In that case, handrails were available, but other people were using the stairs, so the employee could not access the hand rails and thus, the Supreme Court opined that created enough of a distinction between an unexplained injury as in Dykhoff and found the injury in Kirchner to be compensable. In the present case, the Supreme Court similarly found that this employee’s hands were full which prevented her from being able to use the hand rails on the stairs and thus, the circumstances surrounding her fall also meet the requirements for an “increased risk”.
They went on to state that “[i]n workers’ compensation cases, we do not inquire into whether the circumstances that led to an employee’s injury were attributable to either the employee or the employer … [w]e simply ask whether there is a causal connection between the injury and the workplace.” The fact that the employee chose to walk down the stairs with her hands full due to carrying the plant is of no importance to the Supreme Court in this case as that argument gets into the issue of negligence, which is not a relevant factor in workers’ compensation. Thus, the Supreme Court affirmed the WCCA and found this employee’s injury arose out of her employment and was compensable.
There were dissenting opinions from Chief Justice Gildea which was joined by Justice Anderson. The dissent outlines that the compensation judge correctly recognized that to meet the “arising out of” component, “there must be come connection between the injury and the employment.” Citing Dykhoff. The dissent agreed with the compensation judge that there was no “work related” reason she chose not to use the handrail and disagreed with the majority that such a connection need not be shown. The dissent also acknowledged that five years ago in Dykhoff, the Supreme Court held that there is nothing inherently dangerous or risky about requiring employees to use stairways. The dissent noted that the stairway in the present case had no defects, was well lit, with two handrails available and nothing about the employee’s job dictated her choice not to use the handrails. According to the dissent, the employee did not meet her burden of showing that her injury arose from her employment and should not have been compensable.