by Christopher Pugh, Esq.
What constitutes an idiopathic injury is a familiar topic in workers’ compensation because the criteria can be confusing. Idiopathic claims are those in which an injury is deemed not to have arisen out of employment because the claimant’s injury was from an unknown cause or for reasons personal to the employee. A panel at the Workers’ Compensation Seminar on St. Simon’s Island last week attempted to clarify the case law surrounding idiopathic injury defenses, as the concepts of positional risk (where the employee was located) and peculiar risk (increased risk due to employment) still guide decisions on compensability. The panel concluded that the standard set forth in Chaparral Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga. App. 339 (2004) still applies, requiring a causal connection between the condition of employment and the injury. If the injury would have occurred regardless of where the employee was located, and the employee’s work did not increase the risk of injury, the claim is not compensable.
In Chaparral Boats, Heath was walking into work across the parking lot at a quickened pace because she was late. As she walked, she felt a pop and pain in her knee. She stopped momentarily and continued walking. Heath did not argue that her quickened pace was the cause of the injury and there was medical evidence that her pace did not contribute to the injury. Her entire argument for compensability was based on the fact that she was on the employer’s premises when the injury occurred. The Court of Appeals found that merely walking across the parking lot was not incidental or peculiar to the conditions of employment and that the risk of walking was shared by the general public. Thus, the positional risk doctrine alone was not enough to establish compensability, but rather that some causal connection to the condition of employment was needed. In other words, the injury would have occurred due to walking (a risk the general public faced) no matter where Heath was positioned at the time of injury, and nothing incidental to her employment duties was a factor in the causation.
The panel suggested that the Chaparral Court created a hybrid of the positional risk and peculiar risk doctrines. The panel made clear that merely applying one of the risk doctrines to a case is not enough to establish or deny compensability, but rather that a successful idiopathic defense requires a close analysis of the facts on a case by case basis. In practical terms, successful idiopathic defenses will likely require medical evidence that the employee’s injury would have occurred regardless of the claimant being at work.