Why Falling Off a Ladder is No Longer Enough for a Workers’ Compensation Claim
A pillar of Virginia workers’ compensation law is the requirement that the claimed injury “arise out of” the claimant’s employment. The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission and Virginia appellate courts generally interpret this to mean that there must be a “causal link” between the claimant’s job and his injury. That is, if the cause of your injury is unrelated to your job, your injury is not compensable — even if you were injured while you were doing your job.
While such a scenario can be difficult for laymen to immediately apprehend, there are many cases that illustrate this principle. For instance, injuries resulting from situations as disparate as being struck by lightning, being bitten by a spider, and tripping and falling while rushing to get to work have all been ruled non-compensable because the claimant’s job did not, in a legal sense, “cause” the injuries.
In addition, the claimant bears the burden of proof to show the causal link between his job and his injury. This is a particular pitfall for claimants unrepresented by counsel; injured employees without attorneys may simply not understand that it is up to them to demonstrate to the Commission how the conditions of their jobs caused their injuries.
Because there are so many different ways to be injured by a fall, many of which are not legally considered to “arise” out of a claimant’s employment, the rulings in cases on injuries by falling constitute a large and sprawling area of workers’ compensation law in Virginia. This accumulation of judicial opinions sometimes makes proving compensability for some types of falls more difficult than other types of falls. For example, an injury caused by a simple trip and fall on a staircase is generally not, by itself, compensable. This is for the simple reason that people walk up and down staircases every day outside their employment, and tripping while doing so does not meet the legal threshold for “arising out of” employment.
Conversely, for a long time in Virginia, ladders were expressly recognized by the appellate courts and the Commission as being dangerous “in and of themselves.” This legal recognition allowed, for instance, a workers’ compensation award to a claimant who had injured himself so badly due to a fall from a ladder that he could not recall the fall itself or how it happened. Typically, the Commission or the appellate court would rely on evidence provided by other sources to rule on compensability in such a case, but it was clear that the fact that a fall that started on a ladder gave the claimant a head start on the way to an award, sometimes appearing to give rise to what amounted to an inference of compensability for a fall from a ladder.
A recent decision by the Virginia Court of Appeals seems to have changed this head start. In Grubbs v. Correctional Administration/Commonwealth of Virginia, decided May 13, 2014, the claimant had fallen from a stepladder, but “could not say for certain what specifically caused him to fall.” The claimant’s supervisor had testified that there were defects in the stepladder. The Court of Appeals overruled the Commission’s award of compensability because the unrepresented claimant had failed to carry his burden to show the causal connection between his employment and his injury. The Court’s majority opinion did not mention, let alone discuss, any “inherent danger” posed by ladders. This new case may thus signal a statewide change in the legal analysis of “ladder cases,” and has already affected the determination of cases at the Commission level.
The lesson here for both employers and employees is that merely falling off a ladder may no longer be sufficient to persuade the Commission of compensability. Accordingly, both sides in a ladder case will want to take care to determine whether the claimant can prove that something about the ladder, or something more broadly associated with the claimant’s job, caused the fall.