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Estate of Graber v. Dillion Companies

Supreme Court of Kansas

April 12, 2019

Estate of Terrill L. Graber, Appellant,
v.
Dillon Companies, Appellee.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. The interpretation or construction of the Kansas Workers Compensation Act, K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-501 et seq., is a question of law.

         2. When exercising unlimited review on questions of statutory interpretation, an appellate court owes no deference to interpretations given to the Act by the Workers Compensation Appeal Board.

         3. The determination of whether the Kansas Workers Compensation Appeal Board's findings of fact are supported by substantial competent evidence is a question of law.

         4. To obtain benefits under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act, K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-501b(b) provides that an injured worker must demonstrate the worker suffered personal injury by accident, repetitive trauma, or occupational disease arising out of and in the course of employment.

         5. Under K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-508(f)(3)(A)(iv), the phrase "arising out of and in the course of employment" does not include an accident or injury that "arose either directly or indirectly from idiopathic causes."

         6. The term "idiopathic causes" in K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-508(f)(3)(A)(iv) means a medical condition or medical event of unknown origin that is peculiar to the injured individual.

          Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in 52 Kan.App.2d 786, 377 P.3d 1183 (2016).

Appeal from Workers Compensation Board. Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversing the Workers Compensation Board is affirmed. Judgment of the Workers Compensation Board is reversed, and the case remanded with directions.

          Jan L. Fisher, of McCullough, Wareheim & LaBunker, of Topeka, argued the cause, and Matthew L. Bretz, of Bretz & Young, LLC, of Hutchinson, was with her on the briefs for appellant.

          Dallas L. Rakestraw, of McDonald Tinker P.A., of Wichita, argued the cause and was on the briefs for appellee.

          OPINION

          Biles, J.

         To obtain benefits under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act, K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-501 et seq., an injured worker must demonstrate that the worker suffered personal injury by accident, repetitive trauma, or occupational disease arising out of and in the course of employment. K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-501b(b). In 2011 the Legislature excluded from the events eligible for benefits an accident or injury that "arose either directly or indirectly from idiopathic causes." (Emphasis added.) K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-508(f)(3)(A)(iv). In this case of first impression, we must define what the term "idiopathic causes" means.

         This question presents itself because Terrill L. Graber was injured when he fell down a workplace stairway and the accident's cause remains a mystery. The Workers Compensation Appeals Board denied Graber compensation. It construed the statutory "idiopathic causes" exclusion broadly to cover all unknown causes. A Court of Appeals panel reversed, defining the term more narrowly. Graber v. Dillon Companies, 52 Kan.App.2d 786, 377 P.3d 1183 (2016). Graber's employer, Dillon Companies, petitioned for review of that decision by this court, preferring the broader definition. As explained, our interpretation differs from the reading given by the Board and the panel. We hold the term "idiopathic causes" in this context means medical conditions or medical events of unknown origin that are peculiar to the injured individual. We remand Graber's case to the Board for reconsideration consistent with our interpretation.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Graber worked as a forklift operator at Jackson's Dairy, a Dillon Companies subsidiary. Jackson's required Graber to attend a paid safety meeting at the nearby Dillon headquarters. The meeting was on the second floor, so Graber had to go up and down a flight of stairs several times that day. Graber described the stairway as having concrete steps with metal hand railings.

         When the meeting ended, Graber walked to a restroom near the stairs. He ended up face down on a landing at about the midpoint on the stairway, shattering or breaking three vertebra in his neck. He was hospitalized for several days, underwent surgery, and had to wear a neck brace for 11 weeks.

         Graber said he did not remember leaving the restroom and there were no witnesses. There was no evidence tending to show exactly how the fall occurred. And there was no evidence of anything unusual about the stairs that might have caused Graber to trip or slip on them.

         There was evidence that stairways generally pose a greater risk than flat surfaces. John Troyer, the instructor for the safety training, testified stairs are a potential safety issue because "people fall on them all the time." He explained the elevation change increases the risk. When asked if stairs themselves create a greater risk of injury than just a flat, level floor, he concluded "[a]nything that has an elevation change would increase the chance of, I mean, anything. If there's a crack in the sidewalk or ice or anything that is different than the flat level ground would increase it, yes." He agreed that when an employee must use stairs as part of a job, there is an increased risk for falling and being injured. This was echoed by Dr. Paul Stein, who did an independent medical evaluation of Graber. Stein agreed stairs are harder to navigate than flat walkways, noting they are "a more complex bodily activity." He also acknowledged there is a greater injury risk when someone falls on stairs, as compared to a flat walkway.

         There also was evidence Graber suffered from diabetes, a condition requiring him to take insulin and check his blood sugar daily. And Graber testified he had not checked his blood sugar the day of the accident. But he said his blood sugar had gotten high sometimes, and he had noticed no adverse effects.

         There was no evidence that Graber's diabetes contributed to the accident. Graber testified he felt great when the meeting was winding up and had experienced no fainting spells, numbness, tingling, or problems with feeling in his extremities from the diabetes. A coworker said Graber did not act strangely and did not seem to be in a fog, unconscious, dazed, confused, or stumbling. He did not observe anything unusual about Graber's behavior when he last saw him before the fall. And another coworker also denied seeing anything wrong with Graber during the meeting, such as dizziness, confusion, or unsteadiness.

         Graber applied for workers compensation benefits, claiming his fall was a work-related injury. An administrative law judge awarded him benefits after finding the injury arose out of and in the course of his employment. The administrative judge reasoned the requirement to use the stairs increased the risk to Graber, and that the accident did not arise from an idiopathic or neutral risk, giving the injury a clear employment character. Dillon appealed, arguing the fall's cause was unknown, which meant Graber's injuries arose from an idiopathic cause and were not compensable.

         The Board agreed with Dillon. After noting the fall was of unknown origin or cause, the Board found the accident did not arise out of and in the course of Graber's employment with Dillon. The Board noted that before the Legislature excluded what the Board described as "idiopathic falls" from compensation, unexplained falls in Kansas were considered compensable. The Board also noted that most jurisdictions compensate injured workers suffering from unexplained falls based on an understanding that an unexplained fall is a neutral risk and would not have otherwise occurred if the employee had not been working. But, it reasoned, the Act's 2011 changes showed the "legislature displayed a clear intent to exclude such unexplained and neutral risk injuries from compensation."

         Graber appealed. A Court of Appeals panel reversed. The panel held "idiopathic" as used in the Act means "personal or innate to the claimant." Graber, 52 Kan.App.2d at 795. It concluded Graber's injuries could be compensable if the staircase posed an increased risk sufficient to supply the necessary causal connection between the employment and the injuries. The panel remanded the case to the Board to resolve the factual question whether Graber's injury arose out of and in the course of employment based on the panel's statutory interpretation. 52 Kan.App.2d at 798.

         We granted Dillon's petition for review. Jurisdiction is proper. See K.S.A. 20-3018(b) (providing for petitions for review of Court of Appeals decisions); K.S.A. 60-2101(b) (Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review Court of Appeals decisions upon petition for review). After review was granted, we substituted the Estate of Terrill L. Graber as the claimant/appellant.

         Analysis

         An accidental workplace injury is compensable if it arises out of and in the course of employment. K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-501b(b). But the law provides exclusions from that general rule when an accident or injury arises directly or indirectly from idiopathic causes. K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 44-508(f)(3)(A)(iv). Dillon challenges the panel's decision solely on the disputed definition of "idiopathic causes."

         Standards of review

         The Board's decision is subject to review under the Kansas Judicial Review Act, K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 77-601 et seq. The party challenging it bears the burden of proving the agency action was invalid. See K.S.A. 2018 Supp. 77-621(a). The reviewing court may grant relief only for statutorily enumerated reasons, which include two relevant for this appeal: the agency erroneously interpreted or applied the law, and the agency action was based on a factual determination not supported to the appropriate standard of ...


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