News

Logo

Nicholson v. South Carolina Department of Social Services

W. Ryan Nichols, AJ Holloway

With the South Carolina Supreme Court’s recent decisions, in the cases of Nicholson v. South Carolina Department of Social Services, Opinion No. 27478 (S.C. Sup Ct.) (January 14, 2015) and Barnes v. Charter 1 Realty, Opinion No. 27479 (S.C. Sup. Ct.) (January 14, 2015), defendants will need to adjust their litigation strategies going forward in workers’ compensation cases involving unexplained or idiopathic falls.

In Nicholson, a DSS employee, sustained injuries to her neck and left upper extremity when she fell while walking down a carpeted hallway on the way to a meeting.  At her workers’ compensation hearing, the single commissioner determined that Nicholson failed to establish a causal connection linking her fall to her employment with DSS, holding that “there was nothing specific to the floor at DSS which contributed to Nicholson’s fall … she could have fallen anywhere.”  On appeal to the Full Commission, however, a split panel reversed and found that Nicholson’s fall arose out of her employment, noting “it was irrelevant that she could have fallen in a similar way in any number of places-she fell at DSS.”  In so doing, the panel determined that Nicholson’s fall was not unexplained or idiopathic, but rather the result of friction on the carpeting area.  Thereafter, the Court of Appeals reversed the panel’s decision, holding that, although the fall was not unexplained or idiopathic, the carpet was not a hazard peculiar to Nicholson’s employment that contributed to or caused her fall and resulting injuries.  Accordingly, it held as a matter of law that the claimant’s injuries did not arise out of her employment.

Similarly, in Barnes, the claimant’s workers’ compensation claim for injuries sustained while walking down a carpeted hallway at work was denied because the Hearing Commissioner determined Barnes’s fall was idiopathic in nature as it was unexplained and not caused by some hazard at work or a deficiency in the carpet.  The Full Commission adopted the Hearing Commissioner’s Order in full and the Court of Appeals, thereafter, affirmed in a memorandum decision.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in both matters and reversed.  In Nicholson, it held that the Court of Appeals erred in finding Nicholson’s injury did not arise out of her employment.  More specifically, it held that the “arising out of” requirement simply requires some causal connection between the injury and the workplace, noting “[i]t does not require the claimant to prove her injury is entirely unique to her employment.”  Thus, because Nicholson fell while at work while performing her job duties (in this case, going to a meeting when she tripped and fell), the Court held the requisite causal connection was established.

In Barnes, the Court first held that Barnes’s fall was not idiopathic because there was no evidence that her leg gave out or she suffered some other internal breakdown or failure.  In so holding, the Court explained that “[a] finding that a fall is idiopathic is not warranted simply because the claimant is unable to point to a specific cause of her fall.”  Rather, the Court noted that an idiopathic fall is one which “arises from an internal breakdown personal to the employee, thus negating any causal connection.”  Thus, it concluded that “[w]hether [Barnes] tripped because she was hurrying or she tripped over her own feet, neither is an internal breakdown or weakness that falls within the ambit of idiopathy.”

After holding that Barnes’s fall was not idiopathic, the Court concluded that her injuries were proximately caused by her employment simply because she was performing a work task when she fell.  Accordingly, it held that her injuries arose out of her employment and were, thus, compensable.

PRACTICAL IMPACT:

  • As demonstrated above, the holdings in Barnes and Nicholson appear to narrow the scope of defenses for idiopathic falls.
  • As a practical matter, these holdings shift the burden to defendants to demonstrate that a specific internal failure, personal to the claimant, caused the fall and resulting injuries when the claimant fell while performing a work task.
  • Thus, in future claims involving unexplained falls, it will be imperative that employers and carriers focus their discovery on pinpointing a specific internal breakdown that is personal to the claimant in order to negate the causal connection between the employee’s injuries and the employment.
  • Employers and carriers should look at the injured worker’s prior medical records to determine whether the claimant suffered from any conditions or problems which might establish an internal breakdown (for example: a history of seizures or syncope; medications which might cause dizziness; documented prior knee sublaxation or leg injuries).
  • Additionally, closely monitor the claimant’s medical treatment to determine whether any degenerative or medical conditions are found which could have caused the claimant’s accident.