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Employee's coffee-break injury not compensable: Court

Employee's coffee-break injury not compensable: Court

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that workers compensation benefits should be denied for a Missouri woman who twisted her ankle while making a pot of coffee for herself and her coworkers.

In a 6-2 en banc ruling, the high court said that Sandy Johme's injury did not arise "out of and in the course of her employment."

Further, the court said a 2005 reform of Missouri's workers comp law eliminated the state's "personal comfort doctrine," which said injuries could be compensable if they occurred while an employee attended to personal needs at work.

Ms. Johme worked as a billing representative for St. Louis-based St. John's Mercy Health Care, court records show. In 2008, she turned and twisted her ankle while making a pot of coffee in the office kitchen, causing her to fall to the ground and injure her right hip.

Ms. Johme told physicians that her fall was caused by her sandals, which had a one-inch-thick sole, records show. No other hazards were found on the office floor at the time of her accident.

An administrative law judge denied workers comp benefits for Ms. Johme after finding, in part, that she was not performing work duties at the time of her accident.


However, Missouri's Labor and Industrial Relations Commission awarded Ms. Johme temporary total disability and permanent partial disability benefits, records show. The commission cited the "personal comfort doctrine" and the fact that Ms. Johme was on duty during her coffee break.

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the labor commission's ruling. In its majority opinion, the court said that, based on the state's 2005 workers comp reforms, Ms. Johme's injury could only be deemed work-related if it was caused by a hazard or risk that she would not have faced outside of the office.

"In (Ms. Johme's) case, no evidence showed that she was not equally exposed to the cause of her injury—turning, twisting her ankle, or falling off her shoe—while in her workplace making coffee than she would have been when she was outside of her workplace in her 'normal nonemployment life.'"

In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Richard B. Teitelman said Ms. Johme's fall should be considered compensable because it occurred while she was conducting a work-related task.

"Under the principal opinion's analysis, office workers, retail clerks, computer programmers and others in relatively sedentary professions will be barred from obtaining workers' compensation benefits when they are injured while performing many of their work-related tasks," his opinion reads. "While the 2005 amendments certainly were drafted to limit worker's compensation awards, there is nothing in the plain language of (the law) that necessitates such a restrictive analysis."