Appellate Court Upholds Eighty-Year Precedent: Workers’ Comp. Available for On-the-Job Complications of Pre-Existing Conditions

Can an employee recover from workers’ compensation when an on-the-job injury is the result of a pre-existing condition? In Connecticut, the answer is still yes.

BACKGROUND

Sharon Clements was working as a mess hall attendant at the Coast Guard Academy in New London when she passed out without warning, falling backwards and hitting her head on the asphalt. She sustained serious injuries as a result, but was initially denied workers’ compensation for these injuries because she passed out as the result of a known heart condition (a “cardiogenic syncope”). Had the injury to her head been the result of a slip-and-fall, there would have been no question that she would have received compensation. But the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission determined that workers’ compensation would not cover Ms. Clements’ injury when it decided that a head injury caused by a syncopal episode did not “arise out of” her employment.

“ARISING OUT OF” EMPLOYMENT

For an injury to be compensable by workers’ compensation, it must “arise out of” one’s employment. In other words, the injury must have occurred under the time, place, and circumstances of one’s job. The Workers’ Compensation Commission stated that Ms. Clements was ineligible for benefits because she failed to prove that her injuries “arose out of” her employment; they said that, unless she could prove that the injury would not have happened if she were somewhere else, Ms. Clements would not be able to recover.

The Connecticut Appellate Court disagreed, citing a case from 1937 (Savage v. St. Aeden’s Church) that displayed strikingly similar facts: a church employee with a pre-existing heart condition was found on the ground with a head injury after falling backward onto a concrete floor. The Connecticut Supreme Court said in that case that, regardless of a pre-existing condition, an injury “arises out of” employment if it develops within it. This is because workers’ compensation is not designed to punish an employer for dangerous working conditions; its purpose is “to compensate employees for injuries without fault by imposing a form of strict liability on employers.”

PRESENCE OF A “HAZARD”

The Defendant employer in this case attempted to argue that it did not have to pay benefits because the injury was not linked to the presence of a hazard on the employer’s premises. However, the Appellate Court stated that a “hazard” was not limited to a dangerous condition on the premises; “the accident, itself, is the hazard.” In other words, the fact that an injury occurred means there was a hazard.

In a recent case (Blakeslee v. Platt Bros.), the Connecticut Supreme Court held that an injury may arise out of employment even though the employment posed no particular risk of that injury. In other words, you might be just as likely to fall and break a bone at home as you are at work, but that does not mean that you should be denied workers’ compensation if it happens at work- an employer accepts the risk that an employee will fall and break a bone when the employee is hired; the risk “exists as one of the conditions of employment.”

OUTLOOK

The outcome of this case is that Ms. Clements will not be denied workers’ compensation simply because she had a condition that predisposed her to falling. Though the employer is not liable for the pre-existing condition that caused Ms. Clements to become lightheaded and faint, it still must pay benefits for the injury resulting from Ms. Clements striking her head on the ground. An employer accepts the risk that injuries may occur as a result of pre-existing conditions, and the mere fact that a similar injury couldhave occurred elsewhere does not bar the employee from receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

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