Georgia Workers’ Compensation Blog, November 2016
Nathan E. Woody, CORALES & WOODY, LLC
Idiopathic Injuries in Georgia Workers’ Compensation
In order for an injury at work to be eligible for relief under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation program, the injury must “arise out of and in the course of employment.” In one regard, this is a lenient standard in that Georgia borrows from historic tort law something called “The Eggshell Plaintiff Rule.” Under that rule, you take a person as they are (however fragile). Thus, if an employee with a bad knee is hired and thereafter further injures that same knee while performing the job, he or she is entitled to workers’ compensation for the aggravation of that pre-existing condition. However, a question arises if the bad knee starts hurting at work, but it is unclear whether the pain has any relationship to the work being performed.
To that point, an idiopathic injury is “an injury arising from an unexplained origin or cause.” Some states broaden this definition to state that an idiopathic injury is one that is “brought on by a purely personal condition.” In those states, this broadened language attempts to clarify that an idiopathic injury will not be covered under workers’ compensation since it did not arise out of the employment. Here, it is important to note that some states cover idiopathic or unexplained injuries under workers’ compensation, some states cover idiopathic injuries under narrow guidelines, and some states deny idiopathic injuries altogether. Georgia is a jurisdiction that allows coverage of idiopathic injuries under careful restrictions.
Take for example the earliest Georgia case dealing with idiopathic injuries: United States Casualty Company v. Richardson. In that case, Mr. Richardson worked in a department store selling men’s apparel. His job required him to take trips up and down the stairs to the repair and tailoring departments. Mr. Richardson suffered from epilepsy and had suffered epileptic attacks while at work, but there was no proof that the attacks were related to the work being performed. On one occasion, while at work, Mr. Richardson suffered an attack and hit his head on a sharp corner of a table resulting in a brain injury. The Georgia Court of Appeals found that the sharp corner was a workplace hazard and determined that the injuries Mr. Richardson sustained were thus compensable.
In contrast, in a recent 2014 case, Chambers v. Monroe County Board of Commissioners, Ms. Chambers worked as a firefighter/EMT. She sat down to complete paperwork after returning from a call. Ms. Chambers was instructed to get up and let her supervisor use the desk, and she heard a pop in her knee when she stood up. Ms. Chambers eventually needed surgery and there was a question as to whether she would eventually need a knee replacement. The Administrative Law Judge granted Ms. Chambers benefits since she suffered the injury while following her supervisor’s directions. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals subsequently found that when requesting workers’ compensation, the Claimant has the burden to prove causation. They ruled that in Ms. Chambers’ case, she failed to prove that the pop in her knee was connected to her employment as a firefighter/EMT.
As even just two representative cases reveal, idiopathic injury cases are very fact-specific and legally complex. And, of course, every case is different. If you find yourself dealing with an unexplained injury or event at work, contact Corales and Woody for a free consultation.