Bennett v. Columbia Health Care, WD 60283.

Citation80 S.W.3d 524
Decision Date06 August 2002
Docket NumberNo. WD 60283.,WD 60283.
PartiesMarianne BENNETT, Appellant, v. COLUMBIA HEALTH CARE, Respondent, Second Injury Fund, Respondent.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)

Truman Everett Allen, Columbia, for Appellant.

Thomas D. Billam, Kansas City, for Columbia Health Care.

Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Atty. Gen., Daniel W. Follett, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jefferson City, for Second Injury Fund.

RONALD R. HOLLIGER, Judge.

Respondent Columbia Health Care (hereinafter "Columbia") employed Marianne Bennett (hereinafter "Bennett") as a nurse's aid for nineteen years. On May 21, 1997, she filed a Claim for Compensation, alleging an injury to her knee on November 26, 1996. On November 24, 1998, she filed an amended Claim for Compensation alleging additional accident dates of January 31, 1997, and May 13, 1997.

Prior to the date of her alleged injury, Bennett had a prior history of problems with her right knee, which also included medical treatment on several circumstances. At the hearing, Bennett testified that she had undergone surgery for a torn cartilage in 1979.1

Regarding the alleged injury at issue in this proceeding, Bennett testified to two incidents on November 26, 1996. First, she testified that as she was making a patient's bed, she was walking around the bed, and she felt a pop in her right knee. Later that day, she felt another pop in her right knee as she was carrying linens up a flight of stairs. Bennett worked the rest of her shift, but she called in during the night, and the charge nurse on duty told her to go to the emergency room. She did not return to work the next day. The emergency room physician's notes state that Bennett was not carrying anything when she was walking up the stairs. An incident report filed on November 27, 1996, stated that she was carrying clothing protectors at the time her knee popped on the stairs.

At the time of the incidents on November 26, 1996, Bennett believed, and remarked to her supervisor, that her knee hurt because her arthritis was acting up. As stated previously, Bennett had a history of prior problems with her knees, including the surgery on her right knee for chondromalacia of the patella and removal of a loose body in 1979.

On January 2, 1997, Dr. William C. Allen performed a surgical debridement of Bennett's knee. She returned to work on January 29, 1997. On January 31, 1997, Bennett testified that her knee again locked up while she was pushing a wheelchair. On May 13, 1997, according to Bennett's testimony, her knee again "locked up" at work. Claimant has not worked since May 17, 1997. In January 1998, she underwent a total right knee replacement.

A hearing was held November 2, 2000, before an Administrative Law Judge in Boone County. The parties stipulated to jurisdiction, venue, coverage by the Missouri Workers' Compensation Law, rate of compensation, and Zurich's full coverage of the Missouri Workers' Compensation liability of Columbia Health Care.

The ALJ issued a decision on January 16, 2001. The ALJ noted that there was no suggestion in the evidence presented that Bennett was suffering from an occupational disease. As such, the ALJ confined his analysis to the question of whether Bennett's injury was compensable as caused by an "accident" arising out of her employment. The ALJ appears to have taken the position that Bennett did not suffer any "accident" because she had not sustained any fall, loss of balance, slip, or unusual twisting or straining immediately prior to those times when her knee "popped" or gave way. The ALJ also found that the activity in which Bennett was engaged, walking around the premises (including up and down stairs) was an activity to which she was equally exposed outside of her employment. As such, the ALJ held that her injury was not workrelated. He further found that Bennett "did not sustain an accident arising out of and in the course of her employment on any of the three dates in question." Although both sides had presented medical testimony offering an opinion as to relationship between the injury and the employment at the hospital, the ALJ did not discuss any of the medical testimony. Instead, the ALJ decided the case strictly on the fact that walking and going up stairs are normal activities of daily life to which the claimant was equally exposed outside of her employment, and that there was no fall, twisting, jerking or loss of balance. Bennett sought review by the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, which affirmed the ALJ's award denying compensation. The Commission's final award essentially adopted the ALJ's award without substantial analysis or discussion. The present appeal follows.

Issues on Appeal

Bennett raises two points on appeal from the decision of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. First, she contends that the Commission erred in denying her claim because the injury did not arise from any twisting, fall, jerking, or loss of balance while she was performing her job duties. She argues that by such an approach, the Commission essentially added an improper element to her workers' compensation claim. In her second point, she contends that the Commission erred in finding that she was equally exposed to the same hazards outside of work as she encountered as a result of her job duties. She argues that the Commission misapplied the law by holding that her injury was not compensable because she engaged in similar activities in her nonemployment life. Further, she contends that the Commission could not have found that she was equally exposed to similar activities outside of the work milieu, as making patients' beds, carrying linens up stairs, and pushing wheelchairs are not normal activities she engaged in outside of work, but instead were activities inherently and exclusively related to her employment.

Standard of Review

In general, we may modify, reverse, remand for rehearing, or set aside the Commission's award in a workers' compensation proceeding only when the Commission's actions are unauthorized by law, in excess of its authority, fraudulent, unsupported by the facts as found by the Commission, or unsupported by competent evidence on the record as a whole. Willeford v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctr., 3 S.W.3d 872, 874 (Mo.App.1999). Here, a central question is whether Bennett's injuries arose out of the course of her employment. To resolve that question, the Commission needed to assess four factors: (1) whether her employment was a substantial factor in causing her injuries; (2) whether the injuries were a natural incident of the work in question; (3) whether her employment activities were a proximate cause of the injuries; and (4) whether the injuries arose from a hazard or risk unrelated to her employment to which she was equally exposed outside of her employment. § 287.020 RSMo.

The standard employed by this court in reviewing the Commission's findings regarding these four factors hinges upon whether the underlying facts are disputed. Where the facts are disputed, at least one reported case has held that "causation and work-relatedness are questions of fact." Cahall v. Cahall, 963 S.W.2d 368, 372 (Mo.App.1998). Generally, our review of the Commission's findings of fact is very narrow. Indeed, those findings are conclusive, absent fraud, provided the findings are supported by competent and substantial evidence. Moriarty v. City of Kirksville, 975 S.W.2d 215, 219 (Mo.App.1998) (citing § 288.210, RSMo). Conversely, when the pertinent facts are not in dispute, the issue of whether an accident arose out of and in the course of employment is a question of law requiring de novo review. See, e.g., Cox v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 920 S.W.2d 534, 535 (Mo. banc 1996); Cherry v. Powdered Coatings, 897 S.W.2d 664, 666 (Mo.App.1995); Davis v. McDonnell Douglas, 868 S.W.2d 170, 171 (Mo. App.1994). As there appears to be no material factual dispute as to the nature of Bennett's duties or the circumstances immediately attending her injury, we apply the standard of review employed in Cox v. Tyson Foods, Inc., and employ a de novo standard of review to the issue of whether Bennett's injuries arose out of her employment with Columbia Healthcare.

Appellate review of an workers compensation award is a two-step process. Davis v. Research Med. Ctr., 903 S.W.2d 557, 565 (Mo.App.1995). First, we must determine whether the award is supported by substantial competent evidence. See id. In determining whether an award is supported by substantial competent evidence, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the award. Davis v. Research Med. Ctr., 903 S.W.2d 557, 571 (Mo.App.1995). If we find that the award was supported by such evidence, we then examine whether the award is nevertheless against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. See id. at 565. In determining whether the award is against the weight of the evidence, we undertake an independent review of the whole record. See id. at 564.

Was There a Compensable "Accident"?

As indicated above, Bennett's first point on appeal alleges that the Commission, in adopting the ALJ's award, imposed an improper element upon Bennett's claim. Specifically, she suggests that the Commission took the position that for her injury to be compensable, it had to be the result of some event such as a slip, fall, or unusual strain or twisting of her knee. Respondent Columbia contends that the Commission properly took the view that proof of some injury-causing "event," in addition to the resulting injury itself, is necessary to establish a compensable claim. Respondent Second Injury Fund, without substantial analysis or discussion, suggests that the Commission did not impose such a requirement, despite language in the ALJ's award stating that Bennett had not slipped, tripped, or placed unusual strain on her knee.

This issue turns upon the interpretation of the term "accident" in the workers' compensation statutes,...

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