Roller-Dick v. CentraCare Health System – Minnesota Supreme Court holds that falls down stairs are compensable if the circumstances involved create an increased risk.

Roller-Dick v. CentraCare Health System

In the split decision of Roller-Dick v. CentraCare Health System, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that an employee’s fall down stairs was compensable where the fact that she was carrying a plant from her desk with a handbag hung on the crook of her elbow created increased risk, despite the stairs themselves being an otherwise neutral hazard.

Laurie Roller-Dick was an employee of CentraCare Health System. On the employer’s premises was a staircase that employees, including Ms. Roller-Dick, used as a route of ingress and egress from the workplace. It was undisputed that the stairs were “free of debris, moisture and defects” and “in good repair, clean and in compliance with OSHA requirements and applicable building codes.” The stairs were not accessible to the general public. One day, as the employee was leaving work, she carried a plant from her desk and hung a handbag from the crook of her elbow. As the employee descended down the described staircase, not using the handrails, she fell. Although she caught herself on the handrail while falling, she sustained an injury to her ankle.

At hearing, the only issue before the compensation judge was whether Roller-Dick’s injury “arose out of” her employment. The compensation judge found in the negative and explained that the employee had failed to establish that the stairs were “more hazardous than stairs she might encounter in everyday life or that her work duties in some way increased her risk of falling as she descended them.” On appeal, the WCCA reversed. It determined that the compensation judge erred by using an incorrect test. Instead, the WCCA explained, the applicable test was whether the stairs posed an “increased” as opposed to a “neutral” risk. The WCCA concluded that stairs are inherently dangerous and, therefore, are not a “neutral condition,” unlike the floor that was at issue in Dykhoff v. Xcel Energy. The employer and insurer sought certiorari for review.

In beginning its analysis of the “arising out of” and “in the course of” elements, the supreme court confirmed that the requirements are both distinct and conjunctive. That is, both must be met for an injury to be compensable. The “in the course of” requirement refers the to the time, place and circumstances of the incident causing the injury. However, to “arise out of employment,” there must be some “causal connection” between the injury and the employment. Such a causal connection is supplied where the employment exposes the employee to a hazard, which originates on the premises as part of the working environment, or peculiarly exposes the employee to an external hazard whereby he or she is subjected to a different or greater risk than if he or she were pursing ordinary, personal affairs.

Based on precedent, the majority then differentiated between two types of hazards: (1) “special hazards;” and (2) “neutral conditions.” The former includes obvious and easily understood risks. For example, “unsafe conditions” in an employer’s parking ramp. However, the latter category of hazards, while not inherently dangerous or risky, maintain some characteristic that increase the employees’ exposure to injury. In illustrating this concept, the majority made reference to Kirchner v. County of Anoka. There, the employee had to descend down stairs without using the handrail because “[p]ersons ascending the staircase occupied the only side with a handrail.” The majority then confirmed that cases involving neutral conditions are analyzed under the “increased risk test.”

After identifying the applicable test, the majority held that Ms. Roller-Dick’s injury did arise out of her employment. It explained that the circumstances created an increased risk that the employee would fall and injure herself on the stairs, thereby satisfying the requisite causal connection between workplace and injury. Specifically, the majority emphasized the fact that the employee was carrying a plant from her desk that had been given to her by a co-worker. However, in closing, the majority reiterated the fact that it has expressly rejected any legal requirement that the circumstances in the workplace that cause an employee’s injury be related to the employee’s work duties. Rather, all that is required is a causal connection between the injury and the workplace, one that is satisfied if an employee faces hazardous conditions originating on the premises as part of the working environment.

Writing for the dissent, Chief Justice Gildea agreed with the analysis performed by the compensation judge. He noted that “failing to require a connection to Roller-Dick’s job effectively does away with the ‘arising out of’ element in the statute.” He further argued that the rule adopted by the majority amounts to the adoption of the positional risk test, which was specifically rejected in Dykhoff.

The dissent then made reference to Hohlt v. University of Minnesota, in which the court noted that the employer therein had “the responsibility to maintain [the public sidewalk], including keeping it free of snow and ice.” Therefore, in the words of the dissent, when a stairway complies with all relevant safety standards, there is “simply no room for the conclusion that the stairway is a hazard.” In conclusion, the dissent opined that because Roller-Dick’s decision not to take advantage of the safety handrails provided was not attributable to her employer, the “arising out of” requirement was not satisfied and, therefore, the injury should not be found to be compensable.