Court of Appeals Narrows “Idiopathic Fall” Defense in Cartersville City Schools V. Johnson Decision

Written by: Lissa F. Klein, Esq.

The Court of Appeals chipped further away at the “idiopathic fall” defense and overruled a key case concerning this defense in the recent decision of Cartersville City Schools v. Johnson, A17A1469 (March 16, 2018). By way of background, the claimant in Johnson was a teacher who was instructing her students when she walked to her desk to put an image up on a smartboard. She then turned from her desk to walk back to the front of the classroom and in the process of doing so, fell and injured her knee, eventually requiring surgery.

A hearing took place at the administrative level on the issue of whether the claimant’s injury arose out of her employment or was the result of an “idiopathic” fall and thus not compensable. The administrative law judge held that the injury was compensable, finding that the claimant’s “swift movements,” as well as the configuration of the classroom, were risks peculiar to the claimant’s work environment. The administrative law judge reasoned that these risks had caused the claimant to place acute stress on her knee and were the causes of her injury. Thus, the administrative law judge found the requisite “causal connection” to demonstrate the claimant’s accident arose out her employment.

The Appellate Division reversed the award and in doing so, pointed to the administrative law judge’s reliance on facts for which there was no evidence presented at hearing. Specifically, the Appellate Division noted that there was no evidence presented that the Claimant was “weaving” through a “tight” classroom configuration at the time of the fall. Moreover, the Appellate Division noted that the claimant did not present any evidence that she came into contact with any object when she fell. As for the claimant’s “swift movements,” the Appellate Division noted that even if the claimant was moving fast, she failed to present any evidence that moving quickly caused her knee to twist and her to fall. Accordingly, the Appellate Division found that “the act of turning and walking was not a risk unique to [the claimant’s] work, and is a risk to which she would have been equally exposed apart from the employment.” The Appellate Division went on to characterize the claimant’s accident as an idiopathic fall.

The Superior Court reversed the Appellate Division, noting that the Appellate Division’s construction of the term “idiopathic” used a standard that “would label any injury that could be incurred off-site as ‘idiopathic.’” The Superior Court expressly disagreed with this standard, finding that “[s]imply because an injury could occur elsewhere does not make it automatically ‘idiopathic.’” As for the claimant in Johnson, the Superior Court held that the claimant’s injury arose out of performing her duties as a classroom teacher and that there was no evidence that her fall was idiopathic, though it did so despite the lack of evidence as noted in the Appellate Division’s opinion.

The Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the Superior Court’s decision; however, it pointed out that the Superior Court did not sufficiently defer to the fact-finding of the Appellate Division as required by O.C.G.A. §34-9-105. Despite this flaw, the Court of Appeals concluded that it was still able to affirm in light of its own ability to utilize a de novo standard of review.

The Court of Appeals referred to the longstanding legal standard that injuries do not arise out of employment where they “cannot fairly be traced to the employment as a contributing proximate cause, and which comes from a hazard to which the workmen would have been equally exposed apart from employment.” The Court of Appeals determined that the Appellate Division’s application of law was incomplete because it overlooked the “proximate cause” element and instead, limited its analysis to the concept of “equal exposure.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that by doing so, the Appellate Division incorrectly defined the claimant’s fall as idiopathic simply because the claimant could have fallen outside of work while walking and turning and because there was nothing peculiar about her classroom which could have caused the fall.

The Court of Appeals essentially reiterated the Superior Court’s reasoning, noting that “just because an employee could theoretically be exposed to a hazard outside of work that mirrors that which he …must face while at work does not render an injury resulting from that workplace hazard non-compensable…To hold otherwise would render virtually any case in which an employee is walking, turning, or standing….while performing his or her job non-compensable.” Instead, the Court of Appeals pointed to the definition of an idiopathic injury as one that is “peculiar to the individual or arises[s] spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause — and has no causal connection to workplace activity or conditions.”

As for the claimant in Johnson, the Court of Appeals focused on the claimant’s movements, noting that she “actively engaged in the movements and behaviors” required of a teacher when she was injured. The Court of Appeals reasoned that as a result of one more of the Claimant’s movements, her injury was not idiopathic in nature. In light of this view, the Court of Appeals overruled the oft-cited case of St. Joseph’s Hosp. v. Ward, 300 Ga. App. 845, 686 S.E.2d 443 (2009) to the extent that Ward held that an activity is not compensable simply because an employee could have engaged in the activity giving rise to the injury outside of work.

This latest decision from the Court of Appeals significantly diminishes the idea of what can constitute an “idiopathic fall.” The Court of Appeals appears to be saying that a fall is not “idiopathic” simply because there is no obvious workplace cause for it and/or it could have happened elsewhere. Instead, the Court of Appeals has sounded the alarm that seemingly benign aspects of one’s employment, i.e. the “movements and behaviors” required of one’s position, could be sufficient grounds to use in establishing that an accident with no apparent cause “arises out of” employment and is thus compensable.

We hope this latest decision is appealed to, and accepted by, the Supreme Court to flush out the Court of Appeals’ analysis. Notably, it is unclear if the employer and insurer in Johnson made the argument that the claimant’s “movements” are the exact same type of movements she could have performed outside of her employment, i.e. twisting and walking quickly while mowing a lawn, grocery shopping, or rushing to a crying child (outside of her role as a teacher). It is also unclear whether the Court would have reached the same decision had the claimant walked at a slower pace or if there was a different configuration of her classroom, though the Appellate Division made it expressly clear that there was no evidence that either of these factors resulted in the injury. What is clear, however, is that that for the time being, the Court’s ruling in Johnsoncould be the catalyst for claims which previously would have likely been considered idiopathic injuries.