James v. Duluth Clinic

James v. Duluth Clinic – WCCA determines that an employee who planted his foot and twisted while engaged in work activities met his burden of proof to establish that his injury arose out of his employment

In James v. Duluth Clinic, the employee, Daniel James, worked for the employer as a nurse anesthesiologist. In that capacity, the employee performed moderated anesthesia care during colonoscopy procedures. Such care involved, among other things, administering medication to anesthetize patients and ensuring that patients were breathing properly. The process required the employee to observe the patients and properly chart the procedures in their entirety. The charting was done on a computer in the procedure room. The procedure room was described as being small relative to the amount of equipment in the room, making it a “tight space.” The employee sat with the patients lying on a table to one side, and with a medication pump and adjustments on the other.

On the date of injury, at the end of a colonoscopy procedure, the employee, after turning off the medication pump and ensuring that the patient was breathing properly, rolled his chair backwards to get closer to the computer to enter information into the patient’s chart. To access the computer, the employee stood and pivoted to his right. As he did so, his right foot did not move, which caused the right knee to “pop.” The employee was ultimately diagnosed with an ACL rupture, which required surgical repair.

At hearing, the employee offered two theories to establish why his right foot did not move during the pivot: (1) there was a substance on the floor; and (2) the traction on his shoes. Although the compensation judge found the employee credible concerning the planting and twisting, he rejected his theories as to why the foot remained in place during the pivot and described them as being speculative. The compensation judge held, therefore, that, absent something causing the employee’s right foot to stick to the floor, there was no increased risk and the employee’s injury did not arise out of his employment.

On appeal, the employee challenged two factual findings: (1) that there was no clear evidence that a substance existed on the floor; and (2) an IME report. The W.C.C.A. affirmed the factual findings, but held that the compensation judge erred in finding that there was no increased risk. The court further held that the compensation judge, in reaching this conclusion, had applied the incorrect legal standard in looking for a single factor constituting an increased risk as opposed to examining the totality of the circumstances.

The W.C.C.A. began its analysis by reiterating that, for an injury to be compensable, it must both arise out of and occur in the course of the claimant’s employment. It further explained that the former element, the “arising out of” element, connotes a causal connection. The court then referenced the recent Minnesota Supreme Court Decision, Roller-Dick v. CentraCare Health System. It confirmed that, in Roller-Dick, an employee was injured while descending a flight of stairs carrying a potted plant and her purse. The court then explained that, in that case, it was held that the circumstances the employee encountered created an increased risk that she would fall and suffer injury, such that the injury arose out of her employment. The court then referred to Erven v. Magnetation, LLC, and explained that the analysis of increased risk involves an examination of the totality of the circumstances at the time of injury.

It was noted that the compensation judge, in finding that there was no increased risk, considered a number of factors alleged to have been hazards. Again, these included the potential for a sticky substance on the floor, the type of shoes the employee was wearing, the attention, diligence, focus and timeliness required of the employee and the confined space in which he was working. The court further noted that, “All of these factors were rejected [by the compensation judge] on the basis of ‘[in]sufficient corroborative evidence demonstrating a specific factor was both present and operative at the time of the injury.’”

The court specifically held that, under Roller-Dick, the above-described standard was “legally erroneous.” It then held that the correct standard concerns the set of circumstances encountered by the employee in their totality, rather than looking to place an emphasis on any single factor. Based on that standard, the WCCA reversed, explaining that, “While it is true that there was no evidence that there was a sticky substance on the floor, the employee encountered a set of circumstances as part of the working environment, which, when combined, created a hazard.”