Earlier this week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals published its latest workers' compensation decision in Hedges v. Wake County Public School System. In this case, the plaintiff had stumbled and fell when she walked into a workroom to make copies of payroll materials. The plaintiff did not trip on something; she simply stumbled and fell. Because of the awkward way in which she fell, she tore her rotator cuff, which required surgery and three months out of work. For no good reason, the defendants denied the claim.
The plaintiff won in front of the Deputy Commissioner and Full Commission, and was also awaded attorneys' fees because of the defendants' unreasonable defense. On defendants' appeal, the Court correctly affirmed both the award of benefits and attorneys' fees. Details below:
"For an injury to be compensable under the Worker's Compensation Act, the claimant must prove three elements: (1) that the injury was caused by an accident; (2) that the injury was sustained in the course of the employment; and (3) that the injury arose out of the employment." The first two prongs were easily met because the plaintiff was doing her job when she fell, and a trip-and-fall is a quintessential accident.
With regard to the third prong of the test, the Court applied a well-established rule for unexplained falls: "When a fall is unexplained, and the Commission has made no finding that any force or condition independent of the employment caused the fall, then an inference arises that the fall arose out of the employment." Because the plaintiff was doing nothing else besides her work when she fell, courts accept that the fall must have arisen out of her employment, there being no other cause. Therefore, the plaintiff's accident was compensable and she was properly found entitled to benefits.
The Court also upheld that award of attorneys' fees. Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-88.1, a plaintiff is entitled to attorneys' fees if the defendants had no reasonable basis for their defense. Because the case law was clear with respect to unexplained falls, and the defendants did not offer any other basis for their defense, the Commission's award of attorneys' fees was upheld.