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Johnson v. Stormont Vail Healthcare Inc.

Court of Appeals of Kansas

July 12, 2019

Mary L. Johnson, Appellee,
Stormont Vail Healthcare Inc., Appellant.


         1. To receive a workers compensation award, the law places the burden on the worker to prove that the injury arises out of and in the course of the worker's employment.

         2. By law, an accident or injury which arose out of a neutral risk with no particular employment or personal character cannot arise out of and in the course of employment in order to be compensable under the Workers Compensation Act.

         3. The question of whether an accident arises out of and in the course of employment is a question of fact.

         4. Upon appellate review, determining whether the Board's findings of fact are supported by substantial competent evidence is a question of law.

         5. Words and phrases shall be construed according to the context and approved usage of the language, but technical words and phrases and other words and phrases that have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in law, shall be construed according to their peculiar and appropriate meanings.

         6. In deciding whether an injury arises out of employment, the focus of inquiry should be on whether the activity that results in injury is connected to, or is in, the performance of the job.

         7. Once the claimant has met the burden of proving a right to compensation, the employer may seek relief from liability based on any statutory defense or exception. The employer then has the burden of proof on any claimed defenses or exceptions.

          Appeal from Workers Compensation Board.

          Kendra M. Oakes, of McAnany, Van Cleave & Phillips, P.A., of Kansas City, for appellant.

          Roger D. Fincher, of Topeka, for appellee.

          Before Arnold-Burger, C.J., Malone and Hill, JJ.

          Hill, J.

         Mary L. Johnson, a cleaning lady at Stormont Vail Hospital in Topeka, fell twice at work and was injured. She received workers compensation benefits after both the administrative law judge and the Workers Compensation Appeals Board ruled that she had proved her injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment even though she could not explain why she fell. Stormont Vail argues that since these were unexplained falls, they are neutral risks and any injuries arising from neutral risks are noncompensable under the Workers Compensation Act. Because the Board made a factual finding that these falls had an employment character, that is, Johnson fell while walking, and walking was a major portion of her job, we hold the Board properly awarded Johnson workers compensation benefits. The Act only exempts from compensation injuries from neutral risks such as unexplained falls that have no employment character.

         Within a span of a few months, Johnson suffers two falls.

         Johnson worked at Stormont Vail Hospital in the Environmental Services Department as a housekeeper. Her duties included cleaning patients' rooms, bathrooms, waiting rooms, lobbies, and most other areas of the hospital. These duties also included changing sheets, making beds, carrying dirty linens to bins, removing trash, dusting, sweeping, and vacuuming.

         In 2015, while she was walking down a basement hallway in the hospital on her way to clean the pavilion, her foot caught somehow and she fell. She later explained, "I was just walking down, down the hallway and I, I just trip-I fell." Johnson later stated, "I was just-just walking and next thing I knew I had-my foot caught like that, or something, and I just fell flat." She elaborated, "I know my foot stopped (indicating). It stopped, that's what made me trip." Johnson could not say definitively what made her fall-whether she slipped or if her foot caught on something sticky. Johnson noticed nothing on the floor that she could have tripped over or that was wet.

         When she fell, she hit her left knee, skinned her arm, and got a floor burn on her right hand that became bruised. She also shattered her left kneecap. This injury forced her to go to a rehabilitative center for about four days, and then after her discharge she underwent physical therapy. Johnson was off work for three months.

         About six months after returning to work, Johnson was again walking down the basement hallway when she fell just outside the housekeeping office. This time, she was carrying cleaning supplies. "All I saw was me and my supplies scattered all over the floor." She again denied slipping on anything, said the floors looked fine, but also noted that sometimes her shoes stuck to the floor.

         From this fall, Johnson fractured her left wrist. Once again, she could not work for three months. When her doctor released her to return to work, she was told to wear a brace. But since Stormont Vail did not want her to work while wearing a brace, it placed her on extended leave for another month.

         Like the first fall, why Johnson fell is unclear. Once again, Johnson acknowledged there was not anything obvious on the floor that caused her fall. She suggested it was possibly because of the hospital floors being sticky due to an improperly mixed cleaning chemical. After Johnson's second fall, her supervisor asked her what caused it. At his deposition, Johnson's supervisor could not recall Johnson's answer, but he thought she said that she was not sure. He checked the floor for wetness and found it was not wet, but he did not check for stickiness. At the time of both falls, Johnson was wearing closed-toed, rubber-soled shoes required by her employer. The floor in the basement is covered mainly with hard tile and rubber matting in some spots.

         Johnson seeks workers ...

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