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Mo. SC: Employee not entitled to benefits for fall in office kitchen

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jun 4, 2012


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Legal Newsline) - The Missouri Supreme Court said last week that an employee who was injured in an office kitchen after making coffee is not entitled to workers' compensation benefits.

The Court, in its May 29 ruling, said plaintiff Sandy Johme failed to show her injury arose out of in and in the course of her employment at St. John's Mercy Healthcare.

Johme worked as a billing representative for St. John's. Her work involved typing charges at a computer in an office.

Johme's desk was about 30 steps from the office kitchen where the company provided a coffee station for use by all employees.

Typically, the employee who took the last cup of coffee would make another pot.

After making another pot, Johme -- who was clocked in at the time -- fell in the kitchen.

At the time of the fall, she was wearing sandals with a thick heel and a flat bottom, with a one-inch thick sole. The floor wasn't wet, and there was no trash on the floor.

Johme was eventually taken by ambulance to the emergency room. Medical records there indicated she reported she tripped at work because of the shoes she was wearing.

Johme, who complained of lower back pain and pain in her left leg and suffered a fracture to her right hip and pelvis, later sought workers' compensation benefits related to the fall.

An administrative law judge denied her claim, finding she was not performing her work duties at the time of her fall at work.

"She just fell and she would have been exposed to the same hazard or risk in her normal (nonemployment) life," the ALJ wrote.

Johme appealed to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, which reversed the ALJ's decision.

The commission found that Johme's injury was compensable after applying the "personal comfort doctrine" together with a state law requirement.

In particular, it determined that Johme's act of making coffee was "incidental to and related to her employment."

The commission awarded the woman temporary total disability payments, past medical expenses and permanent partial disability payments. St. John's appealed.

St. John's contends the commission erred in awarding benefits to Johme because the award was not supported by sufficient competent evidence.

The state's high court, in its 14-page ruling, agreed, reversing the commission's decision.

"In Johme's case, the Commission erred in focusing its assessment on whether Johme's activity of making coffee was incidental to her employment. The evidence did not link her act of making coffee as the cause of her injury and fall. Instead, the issue in Johme's case was whether the cause of her injury -- turning and twisting her ankle and falling off her shoe -- had a causal connection to her work activity other than the fact that it occurred in her office's kitchen while she was making coffee," Justice Mary R. Russell wrote for the majority.

In Johme's case, no evidence showed she was not equally exposed to the cause of her injury -- turning, twisting her ankle, or falling off her shoe -- while in her workplace making coffee than she would have been when she was outside of her workplace in her "normal nonemployment life," the Court said.

Therefore, Johme failed to meet her burden to show that her injury was compensable, it said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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