By Jordan Hudspith, VBM Attorney

Article written July 1, 2021

One of the most common questions in the workers’ compensation field is utilization of the ‘equal exposure’ doctrine and when said doctrine is applicable for purposes of defending a workers’ compensation claim. Two new cases recently came down from the Commission addressing this issue.

The first case Jamie Overstreet v. TAMKO Building, was decided on June 8, 2021. This case was initially venued in Joplin, Missouri.  In that case, the claimant alleged injury to his left knee from a twisting injury when he attempted to turn, and change directions, while walking on a level surface. The claimant required subsequent surgical treatment for the alleged injury. The Commission concluded that the claimant failed to demonstrate that changing directions while walking was a hazard he would not have equally encountered outside of work and as such, he failed to establish a work-related risk arising out of employment. The claimant alleged that at the time of the injury, he was walking over an ‘uneven’ surface, which was a work hazard. Even so, the Commission concluded that the claimant failed to demonstrate that walking over an uneven surface while at work, even if wearing work boots, contributed to an increased risk or hazard, noting that the claimant walked over uneven surfaces in his daily life, including public parking lots while shopping.

Similarly, the second case, Sydney Durr v. Americare Systems also involved a twisting injury. That case was decided approximately eight (8) days after Overstreet on June 16, 2021. In that case, a thirty-year old CNA twisted her knee while wearing non-skid shoes, when she took a step backward in a tight space between a patient’s bed and the wall. The claimant reported that she was “rushing” to distribute water to the patients/residents. The Administrative Law Judge initially awarded $22,000 in medical bills along with 15% permanent partial disability. Here, the Commission reversed the total award of more than $30,000 in benefits, opining that the claimant failed to prove that her injury arose out of the scope of her employment. Specifically, the Commission noted that the claimant did not identify any problem with lighting or a substance on the floor that would cause her to fall. Further, the claimant was not carrying or holding anything in her hands at the time of her fall. In essence, twisting and turning was not a condition of the claimant’s employment nor was the risk from twisting and turning distinguishable from similar movements the claimant would make outside of work in her non-employment life.

Certainly, these cases are a win for employers as not every movement or step taken by an employee while at work necessarily entitles an employee to workers’ compensation benefits. Employers should always thoroughly investigate the claimant’s alleged injury, and evaluate where the fall occurred, whether there was a substance on the floor at the time of the fall, or hazard of the surface that would cause the fall, and whether the claimant was carrying anything in their hands for purposes of completing their work-related duties. Recorded statements taken as soon after the accident occurs are critical for these types of cases. It is good to lock in the claimant’s story before he/she obtains an attorney and comes up with additional facts or arguments to create a compensable injury where one otherwise did not exist. While it may seem the equal exposure doctrine is difficult to assert and successfully defend a claim, the Commission has highlighted instances where this is possible.

If you have any questions regarding compensability of a workers’ compensation claim, and applicability of defenses, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

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