Win for Employers and Insurance Companies in Equal Exposure Case Decided by Missouri Supreme Court

by Mary Hodges

Recently, the Missouri Supreme Court found, in a 5-2 decision, that a hospital employee who broke her pelvis while making coffee is not covered by workers’ compensation. The case name is Johme v. St. John’s Mercy Healthcare.

The employee, a billing representative of St. John’s Mercy Healthcare, was in the office kitchen making coffee when she turned and twisted her ankle, causing her foot to fall off her shoe. She fell backwards, landing on the floor and fracturing her hip and pelvis. It should also be noted that the floor was found free of any defects or hazards. She subsequently filed a claim for workers’ compensation that was denied by the administrative law judge. The decision was reversed by the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission.

Last October, a divided Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District panel reversed the Commission’s decision and relied on the fact that the Articulated Legislative Purpose of the 2005 amendments to the Workers’ Compensation statute was to raise the threshold for obtaining benefits. To illustrate the shift in law, prior to the 2005 amendments, a worker succeeded on her workers’ compensation claim for injury that resulted as she fell and injured her ankle while carrying her lunch in a break room at work while walking across a clear floor area, without apparent cause. See Drews v. TWA, 984 S.W.2d 512 (Mo. banc 1999).

Needless to say, the Court of Appeals in Johme transferred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Relying on Mitchell v. Missouri Highway Patrol and Transportation Commission, the state high court found that an employee’s injury is only compensable if it is shown to have resulted from a hazard or risk to which the employee would not be equally exposed to in normal life.

In Mitchell, an employee who was laying asphalt felt his right knee pop while he was briskly walking back to his truck. The court, in a 6-1 decision found that “an injury will not be deemed to arise out of employment if it merely happened to occur while working but work was not a prevailing factor and the risk involved is one to which the employee would have been exposed equally in non-employment life.” The employee was denied workers’ compensation benefits.

The issue in Johme was whether twisting her ankle and falling off her shoe was connected to her work activity. Johme drew a distinction between an injury that happens while one is working and an injury that is caused by working.

Post 2005 amendments, being injured while at work is not a guarantee to workers’ compensation benefits. In sum, there is no compensation for job injuries due to causes which are unrelated to one’s employment and which one is equally exposed to in non-employment life. The result makes the issue of whether one is entitled to compensation extremely fact sensitive. The question will turn on what activities were the employee performing during the injury and were such activities a part of the employee’s work duties?