Ohio Claimant Has Burden of Showing Unexplained Fall Was Not Caused by Idiopathic Condition

Where an injured employee’s medical history and medications raised a fact issue about the possible role of risks personal to the employee in an otherwise unexplained fall, the employee was required to eliminate an idiopathic explanation for her fall, held an Ohio appellate court [White v. Buehrer, 2017-Ohio-8254 (Oct. 20, 2017)].

Background

White sustained a broken hip on June 15, 2015, when she fell as she walked through an exam room to deliver mail and broke her hip. During the initial hearing, White presented evidence that the floor had been “tacky” at the time of her fall. She also presented an expert, who opined that at the time of White’s fall, the floor may have been stripped, but not yet re-waxed. The employer produced testimony that the floor was not tacky at the time of the fall. The hearing officer denied the claim and the Industrial Commission “refused” the appeal.

White appealed the denial to the state trial court and sought summary judgment, arguing that there were no genuine issues of material fact that her injury occurred in the course of her work and arose from her work and that her injury arose out of a workplace condition. The Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (“BWC”) contended the fall could have been caused by an idiopathic condition, due to White’s preexisting medical condition, but the trial court found that the BWC was required to raise that issue as an affirmative defense and could not raise it for the first time as a response to White’s motion. The trial court agreed with White’s contention that there were no issues of fact to be determined and found that White was entitled to participate in the workers’ compensation program.

Unexplained Fall Requires Elimination of Idiopathic Causes

Quoting extensively from Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law [current § 7.04], and citing Waller v. Mayfield, 37 Ohio St. 3d 118, 524 N.E.2d 458 (1988), the appellate court indicated that where the cause of a fall is not clear, the claimant has the burden of eliminating idiopathic conditions as the cause of her fall; the burden did not rest with the employer or the BWC to disprove the effects of these conditions. White’s medical record showed that she suffered from various medical conditions, including diabetes mellitus type II, thyroid disease, and “neuropathy in diabetes (leg).”

The appellate court said that White bore the burden to demonstrate that there was no genuine issue of material fact about the existence of idiopathic causes, and she failed to do so. Therefore, she was not entitled to summary judgment, as a matter of law, as she had suggested and as the trial court had ruled. The appellate court reversed the trial court and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

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