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Missouri Supreme Court weighs unusual workers’ compensation claims

The Missouri Supreme Court once again is considering at what point an injury connected somehow to the workplace becomes a work-related injury.

The court heard back-to-back cases in February involving two women who sought workers’ compensation after they fell and were injured. Lucille Schoen sought treatment for a work-related respiratory injury, only to hurt her back at the treating doctor’s office when he tripped her. And Maral Annayeva slipped in the hallway of the high school where she worked, leaving her with ongoing pain.

Despite the factual differences in the cases, Dean Christianson of Schuchat, Cook & Werner, an attorney for Annayeva, suggested a common theme. Schoen’s employer “put her in a position of being in that doctor’s office,” he told the court. Likewise, Annayeva’s work “put her in the position of walking through salt, ice and snow, across no mat, onto a linoleum floor.”

Hanging over the cases are two Supreme Court precedents that set a high bar for work comp compensability. In Miller v. Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission in 2009, the court said a road worker whose knee popped while he was walking back to his truck wasn’t entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, as the risk from walking “is one to which the worker would have been exposed equally in normal non-employment life.”

And in Johme v. St. John’s Mercy Healthcare in 2012, the court drew on Miller in denying benefits to a hospital employee who broke her pelvis at work. The claimant had twisted her ankle and fallen off her shoe while standing at the coffeemaker, which the court said wasn’t connected to her work activity other than having happened at work.

The judges struggled to apply those precedents to the present cases. In Schoen’s case, the disputed injury didn’t even take place at work. As a charge nurse at Mid-Missouri Health Center in Columba, Schoen had complained of throat and eye irritation and coughing after her employer used an ant spray around its air conditioning system.

The employer sent her to a specialist for evaluation. While escorting her to the exam area, the doctor accidentally tripped Schoen — according to briefs, he accidentally kicked her while trying to ward off a small dog belonging to another patient that was running loose in the office.

The resulting injuries to her knee, shoulder, back and neck led to Schoen’s being declared permanently and totally disabled. Only 5 percent of her disability stemmed from effects of the ant spray.

The court peppered Schoen’s lawyer, Truman Allen, with scenarios in which a workplace injury could lead to an unforeseen injury at the doctor’s office.

“You’re saying anything that happens to happen is also considered a natural and probable consequence if she’s in a place you might expect her to be because of the injury?” Judge Laura Denvir Stith said. “If somebody turned and punched her, if she got bitten [by a spider], if the dog had bitten her, those would all be covered?”

Allen said, in many of those cases, they would be.

“If you’re there and are exposed to a risk that is a part of medical treatment, then it’s covered,” he said.

But Eric Doner, an assistant attorney general arguing on behalf of the state’s Second Injury Fund, which picks up parts of the liability for such injuries, said it would be an “absurd result” to set a lower standard for an injury that occurred off the clock and off the employer’s premises than for an injury that actually occurred at work.

It was unclear if the unusual nature of Schoen’s injury helped her case or undermined it. On one hand, she almost certainly wouldn’t have been injured in that fashion if she hadn’t been at the doctor’s office at that moment.

“The doctor tripping her because there was a loose dog — I’ve certainly never experienced that,” Judge Patricia Breckenridge said. “That doesn’t happen often — ever.”

On the other hand, Doner argued that it was a “random occurrence” that might have happened anywhere, so it couldn’t be a work-related injury.

“No worker at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center has ever been exposed to that risk or ever will be again,” he said.

If the circumstances of the injury in the first case were bizarre, those in the second case were all too common, even if the resulting injury was unusual. Annayeva alleged that, on a snowy day, she slipped and landed on her hands and knees in the hallway of Roosevelt High School, then overseen by the St. Louis Transitional School District’s Special Administrative Board. Annayeva’s severe pain persisted in her neck and head, even though she hadn’t appeared to have injured them during the fall.

Two doctors testified that Annayeva’s unexplained pain stemmed from somatic symptom disorder. An administrative law judge, however, found Annayeva wasn’t credible and denied compensation.

It wasn’t clear if the judge’s finding involved the circumstances of the fall, her pain symptoms or both. Christianson, Annayeva’s attorney, argued that the judge and the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission that adopted the judge’s findings were “issuing their own medical opinion.”

“I’m not saying they have to accept it, but they can’t just out and out throw it out and not consider it,” he said of the expert’s testimony.

Matthew Leonard of Early & Miranda, an attorney for the Transitional School District, urged the court not to countermand the ALJ’s credibility determinations.

“As someone who represents employers, I think that it’s nice to have that certainty,” he said.

But if the injury wasn’t compensable under the workers’ compensation laws, then it might not matter. The parties dispute the extent to which moisture and salt were present on the hallway floor and whether that caused Annayeva to slip. Judge W. Brent Powell asked whether it was significant that Annayeva had no choice but to walk down the school’s hallway to get to work.

“You don’t have to stand and make coffee in order to work,” he said, referencing the 2012 Johme ruling. “But you do have to get to work.”

“Just because it happens at work is not enough,” said Caroline Bean, an assistant attorney general.

The cases are Schoen v. Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, SC98168, and Annayeva v. SAB of the TSD of the City of St. Louis, SC98122.