Tennessee: Employee Denied Benefits for Unexplained Fall to Level Floor

In a recent case from Tennessee, Byrom v. Randstad N. Am., L.P., 2012 Tenn. LEXIS 152 (Mar. 8, 2012), a special appeals panel of the state supreme court affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of an employee’s action seeking workers’ compensation benefits where the employee fell to the floor, hit his head on the floor, and sustained a brain hemorrhage. The panel held that the employee failed to prove the causal connection between the fall and work conditions. The panel said the employee’s evidence merely showed that there were several potential causes for the employee’s fall, that some potential causes were related to the employee’s work and that others were unrelated to that work. The panel held that the evidence did not support a conclusion that any one of the potential causes was more likely than not the actual cause of the fall and, therefore, the cause of the employee’s injury. The fall occurred in an open area. The employee did not slip or trip. He struck his head on the floor, but not on any object. The Tennessee case illustrates the important point that showing the injury occurred “on the job” is ordinarily not enough to support an award of benefits. 

Three Categories of Risk

Risks causing injury to a claimant generally fall within three categories: those risks that are distinctly associated with the employment, those that are personal to the claimant, and “neutral” risks–i.e., risks that have no particular employment or personal character [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 4.01 et seq.]. Harms from the first category are universally compensable. Those from the second are almost universally not compensable. Harms from the third category cause the most controversy.

Neutral Risks: Unexplained Falls

Risks are usually classified as “neutral” for either of two reasons: The nature of the risk may be known, but may be associated neither with the employment nor the employee personally; or the nature of the cause of harm may be simply unknown. A common example of the latter is that seen in Byron, noted above: the unexplained fall in the course of employment. If an employee falls while walking across a level floor on the employer’s premises for no discoverable reason, there is no way in which an award can be justified except upon a positional risk theory–that the particular injury would not have happened if the employee had not been engaged upon an employment errand at the time. While some courts have been happy to apply the positional risk rule in these “neutral” risk cases, most have not.

Fall On Level Floor

Years ago, Dr. Arthur Larson succinctly stated the dominant rule related to falls on level floors:

A fall by an employee while at work, where neither the cause of the fall nor of the resulting injury bears any special relation to the work or to the conditions under which it was performed, though it arises “in the course of” the employment, does not arise “out of” the employment.

Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 7.04.

Where the cause of the fall is either unknown or due to some personal, non-occupational condition (heart disease, stroke, epileptic seizure, fainting spell, or the like), the dominant rule is that the effects of such a fall are compensable only if the employment places the employee in a position increasing the dangerous effects of such a fall, such as on a height, near machinery or sharp corners, or in a moving vehicle [Larson, § 9.01].

Statutory Presumptions of Coverage

Note, however, that in some states (e.g., Alaska, Massachusetts, New York) the injured employee may be aided by a statutory presumption of coverage. The same is true for claims filed under the Longshore Act [see § 20 of the Act]. Tennessee has no such presumption. If it did, Byrom would have prevailed, absent a showing by the employer than the fall was caused by some personal, idiopathic condition; there was no such evidence before the court.

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