Iowa: Injuries Sustained in Janitor’s Idiopathic Fall Found Compensable

Reversing a decision by a state trial court that had, in turn, reversed an award of workers’ compensation benefits in favor of a seventy-nine-year-old part-time janitor who had suffered an idiopathic fall at his place of employment, an Iowa appellate court, quoting Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, recently held that the janitor’s fall, while on a coffee break with his supervisor, arose out of and in the course of the employment since there was “some employment contribution to the risk” under the particular facts of the case [see AARP v. Whitacre, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 518 (May 15, 2013).  

While on coffee break with his supervisor, the janitor began to choke. He stood up to get a drink of water and, as he did so, stumbled and hit the corner of his supervisor’s desk (and the wall), then landed head first on the floor. He eventually underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain. A deputy commissioner concluded the janitor’s injury arose out of his employment and awarded medical expenses and weekly compensation benefits. The deputy’s decision was affirmed on intra-agency appeal. The employer sought judicial review. The district court ruled that the agency erred in concluding the janitor’s injury arose out of his work with the employer.

The appellate court acknowledged that generally injuries resulting from risks personal to the claimant, such as idiopathic conditions, were not compensable. Quoting Larson, the court indicated that an exception had been recognized where an employment condition aggravates the effects of an idiopathic fall. Here, the commissioner adopted the deputy commissioner’s determination that the design and construction of the office where the janitor passed out significantly contributed to the janitor’s injury.

The court contrasted the “increased risk” required to establish a claim where the risk was of neutral origin (e.g.., lightning strikes) and those that had a personal origin, such falls arising from idiopathic conditions. With idiopathic falls, there must be “some affirmative employment contribution to offset the prima facie showing of personal origin.” Here, based upon the size of the cramped office, the arrangement of the desk, and other factors, the appellate court found that the commissioner did not err in concluding the janitor’s injury arose out of his employment.

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