Worker’s Stumble Didn’t Come From ‘Unusual or Extraordinary’ Activity

Frank Ferreri

Salt Lake City, UT (WorkersCompensation.com) – Examining steal beams might not be a part of everyday life, but according to a Utah court, walking backward while multitasking is.

As a result, in White v. Labor Commission, 2020 UT App 128 (Utah Ct. App. 09/11/20), the court denied benefits to a manufacturing worker after he aggravated a preexisting knee condition when stumbling over a six-inch block on the floor because the worker wasn’t involved in an “unusual or extraordinary” activity.

Preexisting Knee Condition

While inspecting a steal beam, the worker hit his foot on a block of wood and, he claimed, experienced multiple tears in the meniscus of his left knee. The worker sought compensation for the injury and filed a claim with the state’s labor commission.

Addressing the claim and a dispute about whether the worker had a preexisting condition in the knee, an administrative law judge instructed the medical panel to determine whether the work accident aggravated or contributed to a preexisting condition.

The panel opined that the worker had “chronic degenerative joint disease” before the accident, which “likely aggravated” the condition. Denying the worker’s claim, the ALJ adopted the panel’s assessment that the accident caused a 2 percent lower extremity impairment and a 1 percent whole person impairment.

The ALJ also determined that the worker’s tripping on the block of wood was not “objectively unusual or extraordinary.” The worker appealed the decision to the appeals board, which agreed with the ALJ that it was “not unusual for an individual to take steps backwards and then stumble and shift one’s weight to avoid falling down.”

The worker appealed to court, challenging the board’s decision to uphold the ALJ’s denial of benefits. He argued that the work activity leading to his injury was unusual or extraordinary as compared to conditions encountered in everyday life.

Heightened Standard

In Utah, when an employee has a contributing preexisting condition, the employee must satisfy a heightened legal standard to successfully claim benefits. Under this heightened standard, the employee has to prove that the employment contributed something substantial to increase the risk he already faced in everyday life because of the preexisting condition.

The court explained that the work activity the worker was engaged in at the time of the injury “did not involve an unusual or extraordinary exertion above the usual wear and tear of nonemployment life.” It highlighted that the worker was engaged in activities that are common for people outside of employment settings.

“[The worker] was injured while walking backward, focused on a task other than the mere act of walking, and then stumbling on a protruding object, shifting his weight, and stabilizing himself,” the court wrote. “[T]hese activities are not like those our courts have typically determined to be unusual or extraordinary, such as those involving ‘jumping, lifting great weight, or repetition.’”

Instead, the worker was engaged in activities that were comparable to those generally expected of people from day to day, the court reasoned.

“People in everyday life are generally expected to multitask while walking and to steady themselves when stumbling on something unexpected in their path,” the court reasoned. “Indeed, it is not unusual for persons undertaking simple home improvement or gardening projects to encounter circumstances similar to those surrounding [the worker’s] injury.”

As a result, the court agreed with the ALJ and the board that the circumstances of the worker’s case didn’t show that there was anything unusual or extraordinary that could be presumed to have contributed to increasing the worker’s risk of injury.

Thus, the court upheld the denial of benefits to the worker.

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