NC Court of Appeals Decisions on Workers' Compensation -- Part 2

The third workers' compensation decision that the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued last week was Reaves v. Industrial Pump Service, a case that had already been to the Court last year. Under the Pickrell presumption, "When an employee is found dead under circumstances indicating that death took place within the time and space limits of the employment, in the absence of any evidence of what caused the death, courts should indulge a presumption or inference that the death arose out of the employment." The defendant must then show that the death occurred due to a non-compensable cause; otherwise the plaintiff prevails. In addition, if an employee suffers a heart attack while conducting his work in the usual way, the injury is not compensable. But, a heart attack can be a compensable accident if it "is due to unusual or extraordinary exertion . . . or extreme conditions." Here, plaintiff was working in extreme heat in repairing a basement pump. Not feeling well, he went to his truck, where is partner found him dead from a heart attack not long afterward. The Court concluded that the Industrial Commission correctly applied the presumption, that defendant had not rebutted it, and thus that plaintiff's death was the result of a compensable accident, entitling his wife to workers' compensation death benefits.

The last workers' compensation case in this batch is a 2-1 split decision, Shay v. Rowan Salisbury Schools. The plaintiff, a 15-year teacher, had always used the elevator to get to her second floor classroom. The elevator broke, and for a month, she had to use the stairs to get to the classroom. One day, while climbing the stairs, her knee "popped," and she eventually had to have surgery for a meniscus tear. Plaintiff did not stumble, fall, trip, slip, or twist her knee causing her injury. The Commission found this to be a compensable accident, over Commissioner Ballance's dissent. The Court reversed, finding the injury was not from an "accident." Continue for more on case:

Under the Workers' Compensation Act, a plaintiff is entitled to compensation for an injury "only if (1) it is caused by an 'accident,' and (2) the accident arises out of and in the course of employment." See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-2(6). An accident is "an unlooked for and untoward event which is not expected or designed by the person who suffers the injury;' the elements of an 'accident' are the interruption of the routine of work and the introduction thereby of unusual conditions likely to result in unexpected consequences." The majority held that because the plaintiff had been using the stairs for a month, it had become part of her normal routine, so injuring herself while simply climbing the stairs was not an accident. Judge Wynn (still waiting to get on the Fourth Circuit) dissented, arguing that because the plaintiff was not "regularly expected" to use the stairs -- everyone expected the elevator would be fixed quickly -- stair-climbing was not part of her usual routine, was an unusual activity, and thus her injury was an "accident."