Workers comp and the case of the slippery U sidewalk

You’re a painter at the University of Minnesota and on a winter night you’ve finished your work and decide to “clock out” early because the weather isn’t very good.

You’re walking from the Mayo building to the Oak Street garage — both owned by the U — and you slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, breaking your hip.

Are you entitled to workers compensation benefits arising from your work because the injury occurred — as the law states — “arising out of and in the course of employment”?

It happened to Josephine Hohlt in December 2013. She wasn’t able to return to work for more than a year, and today the Minnesota Supreme Court said she’s entitled to benefits.

Writing for the majority, Justice David Lillehaug said there was a definite connection between Hohlt’s employment and her injury “because Hohlt’s employment exposed her to a hazard that originated on the premises as part of the working environment.”

The university argued, however, that she wasn’t exposed to any more of a hazard than anyone who wasn’t employed by the university.

“She was exposed to the icy sidewalk on her employer’s premises because she was there, not as a member of the general public, but because of her employment as a painter,” Lillehaug countered.

The WCCA [Workers Compensation Court of Appeals ] properly observed that sharpening the increased-risk test that way would eliminate a broad swath of compensable injuries. As the WCCA put it, under the University’s interpretation of the increased-risk test, a “hotel maid injured while cleaning a hotel room would not be covered because members of the general public do cleaning and the maid cleans her own residence. The same would hold true for landscape workers, delivery drivers, cooks, and many other occupations.”

This cannot be what the Legislature intended, and is certainly not consistent with our case law. When an employee encounters an increased risk of injury from a hazard on the employer’s premises because of her employment, her injury is one “arising out of” employment under the statute. Accordingly, we hold that Hohlt’s slip and fall arose out of her employment.

But Justice Barry Anderson disagreed and said workers compensation isn’t designed to compensate employees for every injury that occurs.

When she slipped and fell, Hohlt was engaged in personal activities, not work for the University of Minnesota, he said.

“Hohlt did not establish that her injury was in any way caused by her employment. To the contrary, Hohlt admits that she fell on a public sidewalk and that ‘any member of the general public’ was ‘equally at risk’ for falling on the same sidewalk due to the same conditions—ice—that Hohlt faced” he wrote in a dissent.

“Hohlt was injured four blocks from the building in which she worked. This is a significant distance; so significant, in fact, that we have never previously awarded compensation for an injury that occurred on the way to a parking lot this far from the workplace. There is a reason that distance is important in evaluating this element,” he wrote.

Is parking at a distance four blocks from the worksite compensable, but five blocks is not? If parking at a distance five blocks from the worksite is not compensable, why not? The court says that an injury would not be compensable if it occurred “abnormally far” from the workplace, but the court does not define what distance is abnormal. Hohlt chose to park in the Oak Street public parking ramp because it was convenient for her, but the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus contains many public parking facilities spread out over a large campus located in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Under the court’s analysis, the University could be liable for Hohlt’s injury whether she fell just outside the Mayo building or miles away—as long as she was walking to her car parked in an employer-owned parking ramp.

He called it an “unprecedented expansion of workers compensation liability” in Minnesota.

Here’s the full decision.