Harris v. Board of Education

Decision Date06 June 2003
Docket NumberNo. 43,43
Citation825 A.2d 365,375 Md. 21
PartiesVernell HARRIS v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF HOWARD COUNTY.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Anne E. Hoke (Ingerman & Horwitz, L.L.P., on brief), Baltimore, for petitioner.

Matt M. Paavola, M. Crawford Keenan, Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, Baltimore, amicus curiae for petitioner.

Daniel H. Scherr (Reese and Carney, L.L.P., on brief), Columbia, for respondent.

David A. Skomba, Michael W. Prokopik, Franklin & Prokopik, Baltimore, Brief & Appendix of Amici Curiae, Maryland Association of Board of Education Workers' Compensation Group Self-Insurance Fund, Maryland Association of Community Services Workers' Compensation Self-Insurance Group and the Rockwood Casualty Insurance Company, amici curiae for respondent.

William A Kress, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, Baltimore, Carmine G. D'Alessandro, Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, Towson, Brief of Amici Curiae, Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, Johns Hopkins Medical System, Johns Hopkins University, The Maryland Chapters of Associated Builders and Contractors, The Maryland Self-Insurers' and Employers' Compensation Association, Inc. and The University of Maryland Medical System Corporation.

David S. Bliden, Executive Director, Maryland Association of Counties Incorporated, Annapolis, Brief of Amicus Curiae Maryland Association of Counties, Inc.

Argued Before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL and BATTAGLIA, JJ.

ELDRIDGE, Judge.

We issued a writ of certiorari in this workers' compensation case for the purpose of reconsidering one particular line of this Court's opinions which have held that, for an injury to be covered as an "accidental injury" under the Workers' Compensation Act, Maryland Code (1991, 1999 Repl. Vol.), § 9-101 et seq. of the Labor and Employment Article, the injury must result from "unusual activity." The "unusual activity" requirement is not supported by the language of the Workers' Compensation Act, is contrary to other opinions by this Court, is a distinct minority view in the nation, and contravenes the liberal purposes of the Workers' Compensation Act. We shall overrule the line of cases which injected the "unusual activity" requirement into the definition of "accidental injury."

I.

In January 1999, the petitioner, Vernell Harris, was fifty-eight years old and had been employed by the respondent, the Howard County Board of Education, for twelve years at Wilde Lake High School, as a "Food and Nutritional Service Assistant I." Ms. Harris's duties included preparing lunches for the students, tending to the cash register, cleaning the kitchen area, and laundering all linens used throughout the day. It is undisputed that Ms. Harris's regular work involved lifting boxes of frozen food weighing approximately thirty-five pounds from the freezer and carrying them to the appropriate food preparation area.1 On the day that she incurred her injury, January 25, 1999, Ms. Harris was doing laundry with a co-worker, as she typically did at the end of her workday. The two women opened a forty-five pound box of laundry detergent, but they found that the box was full of cockroaches. They immediately closed the box to prevent the insects from contaminating the food preparation area and moved the box outside. Because the box was very heavy, they could not lift it. Instead, Ms. Harris and her assistant dragged the box out of the laundry room by sliding it through the kitchen and out of a side door. Once outside, they removed the bag of soap powder from the box. This required some pulling back and forth on their part. Ms. Harris pulled on the box while her assistant pulled out the soap powder bag. Once the soap powder was out of the box, they took the bag back inside to the laundry room and placed it in a different box that was elevated only about half as high as the original box.

After bending down to scoop some soap detergent into a cup, Ms. Harris bent down a second time to tie up the bag of soap powder. At that point, her back "cracked" and she screamed. Ms. Harris was unable to stand upright, and, when a co-worker brought her a chair, she was unable to sit. She appeared to be in excruciating pain. With the aid of another co-worker, Ms. Harris walked to the cafeteria manager's office who gave her an incident form authorizing her to see a doctor at a nearby medical office.

Ms. Harris was seen by Dr. Prudence Jackson at the Concentra Medical Center later that afternoon. Dr. Jackson testified that it was her expert medical opinion, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that dragging the heavy box of laundry soap outside caused Ms. Harris's back injury.

In August 1999, Ms. Harris filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission, alleging that she was disabled as a result of her back injury on January 25, 1999. After a hearing, the Workers' Compensation Commission issued an order finding that Ms. Harris had sustained an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of her employment and was entitled to compensation.

The employer, the Howard County Board of Education, filed in the Circuit Court for Howard County an action for judicial review. At the jury trial in December 2000, Ms. Harris moved for judgment at the close of the employer's case-in-chief and at the close of all evidence on the ground that, as a matter of law, her injury was compensable under the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act. The trial judge denied both motions on the ground that there was sufficient contradictory evidence, as to whether the injury arose out of "unusual activity," for the issue to go to the jury. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the employer. Thereafter, Ms. Harris filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial, but the motion was denied.

Ms. Harris took an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals which, in an unreported opinion, affirmed. The intermediate appellate court, relying upon Sargent v. Board of Education, Baltimore County, 49 Md.App. 577, 580-582, 433 A.2d 1209, 1211-1212 (1981), held that there was sufficient evidence that Ms. Harris's injury did not arise out of "unusual activity" to sustain the jury's verdict. The appellate court stated:

"Clearly, there was sufficient evidence to allow appellee's case to proceed to the jury. Although dragging the detergent box outside of the kitchen was not a task which was performed with regular frequency, the nature of the task was similar to the chores performed by appellant during a typical work day, satisfying the first prong of the Sargent test. During its case-in-chief, appellee presented evidence that lifting boxes, weighing between twenty-seven and thirty-six pounds, was a normal occurrence, even if dragging a soap box was not. Similarly, with regard to the second prong of the test, appellee presented sufficient evidence that the tasks were performed with relative frequency: appellant was to lift the boxes almost every day during the completion of her duties."2

Ms. Harris filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari, requesting in her first question presented that we "revisit the definition of the word `accident' within the meaning of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act" and that we "restore the use of the meaning this Court originally gave the word: an untoward event which was neither expected nor intended-referring to the injury itself, not the activity which resulted in the injury, and thus consonate Maryland law with that of the vast majority of the states...." In her second question presented, Ms. Harris argued that, if this Court were to retain the "unusual activity" requirement, we should hold that the activity in the case at bar was "unusual." We granted the petition, Harris v. Board of Education of Howard County, 369 Md. 659, 802 A.2d 438 (2002), and we shall reverse. In light of our holding on the first question presented, we do not reach the second question.

II.

Maryland was the first state in the nation to enact a workers' compensation statute. See Ch. 139 of the Acts of 1902; Honaker v. W.C. & A.N. Miller Development Co., 285 Md. 216, 223 n. 2, 401 A.2d 1013, 1016-1017 n. 2 (1979).3 The current Maryland Workers' Compensation Act was initially enacted by Ch. 800 of the Acts of 1914. As first enacted, the 1914 Workers' Compensation Act compensated employees for "accidental injuries" occurring in "extra-hazardous" employment, but the Act excluded "occupational diseases."4 The coverage of "occupational diseases" began in 1939, and the "extra-hazardous" language was deleted by Ch. 741 of the Acts of 1970.5

The current Maryland Workers' Compensation Act, in § 9-101(b) of the Labor and Employment Article, defines "accidental personal injury" as follows:

"§ 9-101. Definitions.

(a) In general.—In this title the following words have the meanings indicated.
(b) Accidental personal injury."Accidental personal injury" means:
(1) an accidental injury that arises out of and in the course of employment;
(2) an injury caused by a willful or negligent act of a third person directed against a covered employee in the course of the employment of the covered employee; or
(3) a disease or infection that naturally results from an accidental injury that arises out of and in the course of employment, including:

(i) an occupational disease; and

(ii) frostbite or sunstroke caused by a weather condition."

* * *

The above-quoted language contains no mention of "unusual activity." Under the plain language of the statute, what must be "accidental" is the injury and not the activity giving rise to the injury. The activity giving rise to the injury need only "arise[ ] out of and in the course of employment," and not be otherwise excluded by the Act. See Seidman, "Accidental Means" In Workmen's Compensation, 18 Md. L.Rev. 131 (1958).

As Judge John J. Parker stated for the federal Circuit Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit,...

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