NC Court of Appeals Concludes Unexpected Injury Not Covered by Workers' Compensation

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently issued an interesting opinion in Gray v. RDU Airport Authority. In the case, the plaintiff -- a traffic control officer -- was directing traffic in front of the airport terminals when he stepped backward onto a sloping part of a crosswalk and felt a sharp "pop," later revealed to be a ruptured Achilles tendon.

The Court upheld the Industrial Commission's denial of benefits on the grounds that there had been no injury "by accident." Workers' compensation only covers injuries (as opposed to an occupational disease) that are caused by an "accident" connected to work. The Court held: "An 'accident' is an "unlooked for event" and implies a result produced by a 'fortuitous cause.' ... Thus, in order to be a compensable 'injury by accident,' the injury must involve more than the employee's performance of his or her usual and customary duties in the usual way."

Here, because the plaintiff was performing his job in his usual way, it was not unusual for him to step backwards of the crosswalk, the plaintiff did not trip or fall, and nothing unforeseen happened, the Court agreed that there was no "accident." The Court rejected plaintiff's arguments that it was an unusual "misstep" or that his action was "accidental" because of his subjective perspective.

Although possibly limited by its facts, this case could become important as precedent. It also goes to show that every single facet of a workers' compensation case has to be thoroughly considered and litigated -- potential pitfalls are everywhere.