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Injuries to workers can occur in many ways, but few employers expect such injuries to come out of an employee’s nightmare. When that happens, is the injury covered by workers’ compensation? According to the Court of Appeals of Arkansas, the answer is no. But why?
In November 2015, Shawn Hansen was employed by the City of Siloam Springs, Ark., as a firefighter and an EMT. Hansen worked 24-hour shifts. During his shifts, he was required to stay on premises unless he was performing a work-related errand or activity. Because of the 24-hour scheduling scheme, the city provided sleeping arrangements and encouraged the employees to sleep during nighttime hours.
On one such shift, at around 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning, Hansen awoke from a bad dream in which he believed spiders were crawling all over him. During his sleep-based stupor, he jumped from his bed and suffered a fracture of the long bone on the outside of his left foot that connects to his little toe (the left fifth metatarsal).
The injury ultimately required surgery. Hansen filed a workers’ compensation claim, but his claim was challenged on the basis that the injury was not work-related. An administrative law judge found that although Hansen’s sleep benefited the employer, the dream about spiders was idiopathic in nature — that is, of unknown origin — and that the idiopathic dream caused him to jump out of bed and injure himself. The administrative law judge found that sleeping in the employer-provided facilities did not increase the risk of harm and determined that Hansen failed to prove that he had suffered a compensable injury. Hansen appealed that decision.
On appeal, Hansen alleged that the injury was compensable. The court noted that to be compensable the injury must be an accidental one causing internal or external harm that arises out of and in the course of employment. It must be established by medical evidence supported by objective findings that can’t come under the voluntary control of the patient. It was Hansen’s duty to prove a compensable injury by a preponderance of the evidence, the court said.
Hansen argued that his injury was not idiopathic. According to prior court decisions, an idiopathic injury is one whose cause is personal in nature or peculiar to the individual. Hansen disagreed that his injury was caused by his dream, taking the position that the injury occurred due to his employer-provided sleeping arrangements. This argument was basically a request for the court to revisit the evidence and reach a different conclusion.
The appeals court explained its standard of review: If reasonable minds could reach the same conclusion as the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission, the appellate court had to affirm that decision. The court then found that the commission had substantial evidence to support its decision.
Hansen’s next argument was that even if his injury was deemed to be idiopathic, his work conditions contributed to the risk of injury, so it should be deemed compensable. The court noted that because an idiopathic injury is not related to employment, it is generally not compensable unless employment conditions contributed to the risk, for example, putting a worker with poor equilibrium in a position that increases the dangerous effect of a fall.
The commission found that in Hansen’s sleeping quarters at work, there was no added danger or risk, and it was reasonable to conclude that Hansen would likely have experienced the same type of sleeping conditions at home in his bed. Thus, the sleeping arrangement at Hansen’s job site didn’t add or contribute to the risk of injury. The appellate court determined that reasonable minds could indeed reach the same conclusion as the commission on this issue as well, and Hansen failed to prove that he sustained a compensable injury.
The case is Hansen v. City of Siloam Springs, 2018 Ark. App. 67 (Ct. App).
Author’s Note: Initially, when reading this case it seems impossible for a reasonable person to come to the conclusion that the commission reached. Generally, if a person is injured while on the job, he should be compensated for his injury. This case is a little different, though, due to the 24-hour shift nature of the firefighting and EMT positions. The employer here clearly had to make sure that the sleeping arrangements were safe and didn’t pose any increased risk of injury. Often, firefighters and EMTs have to jump out of bed quickly to respond to an emergency, so it seems reasonable that the employer would make the sleeping situation as safe as possible for the quick movements that occur after a call is received.
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