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Minn. court rules woman’s injury from fall at work not compensable

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The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled Wednesday that an employee who fell down a flight of steps while at work is not due workers compensation because she chose not to use a handrail.

Laurie Roller-Dick, an employee of CentraCare Health System, an eight-site hospital system based in St. Cloud, Minnesota, was leaving work when she fell down a set of stairs, fracturing her left ankle, according to documents in Laurie A. Roller-Dick v. CentraCare Health System and SFM Mutual Cos., filed in court in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Court documents reveal Ms. Roller-Dick accessed the stairway, which is generally not accessible to the public, from the second-floor administrative area where she worked. The stairway has railings on both sides as well as nonslip treads on the steps. Immediately before Ms. Roller-Dick fell, she was not using the handrails. “She was holding a plant from her desk in both hands and her handbag was hanging from the crook of her elbow. As she was falling, she dropped her plant and caught herself on the handrail, resulting in the ankle injury,” documents state.

Before the workers compensation judge, Ms. Roller-Dick testified that the rubber sole of her shoe "stuck" to the treads of the stairs, court records state. But the workers compensation judge found that "the non-skid surface of the stairs (neither) contributed to (nor) increased the risk of her fall." Further, the compensation judge found that the stairs were "a reasonable and consistent height" and that they were "free of debris, moisture, and defects" at the time of her fall.

The only issue before the compensation judge being whether Ms. Roller-Dick's injury "arose out of" her employment, the judge held that the injury did not arise out of employment because she failed to establish that the stairs were "more hazardous than stairs she might encounter in everyday life or that her work duties in some way increased her risk of falling as she descended them," according to records.

The compensation judge commented that it was "undoubtedly true" that the fact that Ms. Roller-Dick was not holding onto the handrails increased her risk of falling. But because Ms. Roller-Dick could not identify a "work-related reason" why she was not using the handrails, the compensation judge rejected the argument that her injury arose out of her employment on the basis of that fact, the judge ruled.

On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals ruled otherwise, determining that the compensation judge applied the incorrect test by requiring the employee to demonstrate some defect or additional hazard on the stairs. The correct test, the appeals court ruled, is whether the stairs posed an "increased" as opposed to a "neutral" risk,” records state. The appeals court determined that stairs in the workplace are inherently hazardous, and thus they are not a "neutral condition" like the floor at issue in a previous, similar case. Because the stairs alone increased her risk of injury, the appeals court held that her injury arose out of her employment.

The state Supreme Court overturned the appeal ruling, finding favor in the original ruling that found the fall outside the scope of employment: “Roller-Dick chose, as the compensation judge found, not to use the handrails her employer provided because she was carrying personal items, a purse and a ‘personal plant.’ Nothing about Roller-Dick's employment dictated that choice.”

The ruling said “Roller-Dick did not meet her burden to show that her injury arose from her employment” and that the judgment of the compensation judge is reinstated.