Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided that workers who trip and fall at work are entitled to compensation for their injuries, even if the cause of the accident is unknown.
Judy Barnes, an administrative assistant at a local real estate office, tripped and fell at work while hurrying down the hall to check an email for one of the real estate agents. Barnes broke her arm and leg and suffered a torn rotator cuff. She filed a workers' compensation claim but was denied benefits due to the fact that there was no clear explanation for why she fell. There was no hazard or defect in the carpet or hallway, and so Barnes' fall was initially deemed "idiopathic" and non-compensable by the SC Workers' Compensation Commission and the Court of Appeals.
The word "idiopathic," as used by the South Carolina Supreme Court in this case, describes an accident as one that is brought on by a condition that is completely unrelated to a worker's employment, and is therefore not compensable under the law. However, it seems that the Workers' Compensation Commission had been expanding the definition of "idiopathic" to include almost any unexplained fall.
Attorneys Kevin Holmes, David Pearlman, and Michael Jordan represented Judy Barnes for her workers' compensation case. They argued that workers' compensation is designed to be a "no-fault system," and that just because Barnes couldn't explain what caused the fall, that's no reason to deny her workers' compensation benefits. "Idiopathic means a cause personal to you, and it's not the same thing as an unknown cause," explained Holmes. "You just have to prove you were injured doing your job the way you were supposed to do it." Barnes was performing a work task when she tripped and fell, which clearly established a causal connection between her employment and her injuries. "The reason you were hurt was because you were at work, working," explained Holmes. So, even though Barnes couldn't say whether she "tripped because she was hurrying or she tripped over her own feet," neither is considered an exception to workers' compensation, as determined by the court.
The Steinberg Law Firm successfully reversed the court's decision and secured the workers' compensation benefits Judy Barnes deserved.
For full details about the court's decision, please visit http://m.sccourts.org/opinions/HTMLFiles/SC/27479.pdf