In a decision that “defies common sense” according to the dissenting justice, an office worker who fell from his chair while reaching for his dropped pen was denied workers’ compensation benefits in Noonan v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2016 IL App (1st) 152300WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.
The claimant was originally a truck driver for the City of Chicago, but was more recently working working for the city as a clerk, filling out forms called “truck driver sheets.”
He testified that he fell out of his chair while attempting to pick up a fallen pen and injured his hand:
I was filling out a truck sheet and I made a mistake. I got out of my chair, grabbed another sheet, sat down, and I believe when I sat down, I put my elbow on the desk, knocked the pen off, pen fell to my right. So I put my left hand on top of the desk, and I’m sitting in a chair just like [the court reporter] here, and when I went and reached to my right, I didn’t know that the chair got up on its wheel. So[,] just as I was maybe about two inches or [an] inch from picking the pen up off the floor, the chair went out from underneath me. I stuck my right hand out to brace my fall.
“To obtain compensation under the [Workers’ Compensation] Act, an employee bears the burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he or she has sustained accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of the employment.” 820 ILCS 305/1(d) Illinois General Assembly | IWCC PDF.
The arbitrator denied his claim finding that he failed to prove an accident arising out of his employment and the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed.
Following additional levels of circuit court and Commission review, the case eventually reached the Illinois Appellate Court.
The Appellate Court noted that the arising out of employment requirement is “primarily concerned with causal connection and is satisfied when the claimant shows that the injury had its origin in some risk connected with, or incidental to, the employment so as to create a causal connection between the employment and the accidental injury.”
As the Illinois Supreme Court has explained:
Stated otherwise, an injury arises out of one’s employment if, at the time of the occurrence, the employee was performing acts he was instructed to perform by his employer, acts which he had a common law or statutory duty to perform, or acts which the employee might reasonably be expected to perform incident to his assigned duties.
A risk is incidental to the employment where it belongs to or is connected with what an employee has to do in fulfilling his duties.” Sisbro (citations and quotation marks omitted)
“For an injury to have arisen out of the employment, the risk of injury must be a risk peculiar to the work or a risk to which the employee is exposed to a greater degree than the general public by reason of his employment.” Orsini v. Industrial Commission, 117 Ill. 2d 38 (1987) Google Scholar.
“[I]f the injury results from a hazard to which the employee would have been equally exposed apart from the employment, or a risk personal to the employee, it is not compensable.” Caterpillar v. Industrial Commission, 129 Ill. 2d (1989) Google Scholar.
Following these principles, the Appellate Court explained that employees are exposed to three categories of risk:
- Risks that are distinctly associated with employment;
- Risks that are personal to the employee; and
- Neutral risks that do not have any particular employment or personal characteristics.
Accidents that result from employment-related risks are compensable, while accidents from personal risks are not compensable.
“Injuries resulting from a neutral risk generally do not arise out of the employment and are compensable under the Act only where the employee was exposed to the risk to a greater degree than the public.” Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 407 Ill. App. 3d 1010 (2011) Google Scholar.
“Such an increased risk may be either qualitative, such as some aspect of the employment which contributes to the risk, or quantitative, such as when the employee is exposed to a common risk more frequently than the general public.” Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 407 Ill. App. 3d 1010 (2011) Google Scholar.
In this case, the Appellate Court – actually a majority of the Court – disagreed with the claimant’s argument that reaching for a pen he had been using to complete forms was “in furtherance of his duties” for his employers and “incidental to his employment.”
The Court found that the act of reaching for his pen was not one that he was instructed to perform or had a duty to perform. It was not incidental to his assigned duties and it was not distinctly associated with his employment.
The Court distinguished three cases relied upon by the claimant.
In Young v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2014 IL App (4th) 130392WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF, the claimant was a parts inspector who injured his shoulder while reaching into a deep, narrow box to retrieve a part for inspection. The Appellate Court found that the claimant’s reaching and stretching in the box was an employment-related risk because it was necessary for the fulfillment of his job duties and thus distinctly related to his employment.
In Autumn Accolade v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2013 IL App (3d) 120588WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF, the claimant was a caregiver at an assisted-care facility and was responsible for helping residents with their activities of daily living. “While assisting a resident in the shower and holding onto the resident, the claimant reached to remove a soap dish that she believed posed a safety hazard and felt a ‘pop’ in her neck.” The Appellate Court found that the accident arose out of her employment because she was performing an act which she might be reasonably expected to perform incident to her assigned duties.
In O’Fallon School District No. 90 v. Industrial Commission, 313 Ill. App. 3d 413 (2000) Google Scholar, the the claimant was a teacher assigned to hall duty with the task of stopping children from running in the hallway. The claimant was injured when she noticed a student a running in the hall and she turned and twisted her body to pursue the student. The Appellate Court found that this injury had its origin in a risk arising out of her employment because she had been specifically ordered to undertake the risk of pursuing a running student.
Here, the Appellate Court distinguished these cases as all involving acts that the employer might reasonably have expected to be performed when fulfilling the duties of the job: “a parts inspector reaching into a box to retrieve a part for inspection (Young), a caregiver reaching to remove a safety hazard while holding onto an individual in the shower (Autumn Accolade), and a hall monitor turning and twisting to pursue a running student (O’Fallon).”
The Appellate Court did not agree that reaching to retrieve a dropped object while sitting in a chair was likewise a risk distinctly associated with employment.
Rather, the Appellate Court found that this was a neutral risk. “Instead, we find the risk of falling from a chair while reaching to the floor is one which claimant would have been equally exposed to apart from his work for the employer.”
As a neutral risk, the claim would only be compensable if the claimant established that he was quantitatively or qualitatively exposed to the risk to a greater degree than the general public.
“Employment-related risks associated with injuries sustained as a consequence of a fall are those to which the general public is not exposed such as the risk of tripping on a defect at the employer’s premises, falling on uneven or slippery ground at the work site, or performing some work-related task which contributes to the risk of falling.” First Cash Financial Services v. Industrial Commission, 367 Ill. App. 3d 102 (2006) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.
Here, the Court found that the claimant presented no evidence of defect. The Court also did not find any work-related task contributed to his risk of falling, reasoning that “the risk posed from reaching for a pen while sitting in a rolling chair is no greater than if claimant had been reaching to retrieve any other object, including one wholly personal to him. As a result, we find claimant’s employment did not expose him to a neutral risk to a greater degree than the general public.”
The Court agreed with the Commission that the claimant did not suffer an accident arising out of employment and his claim was denied.
However, the justices were not unanimous. One wrote a concurrence to argue that Young and Autumn Accolade were wrongly decided as involving employment-related risks. He would find that they both involved activities of everyday living (such as bending, reaching, or stooping) and could only be compensable if the job “required him to perform those activities more frequently than members of the general public or in a manner that increased in the risk.”
Another justice dissented, stating that the majority’s finding that an employer would not reasonably expect a clerical worker to bend over to pick up a dropped bend “defies common sense.” This justice would have found this to be a risk distinctly associated with employment.