UNEXPLAINED ACCIDENTS

The Kansas Workers Compensation Act and its applicability to unexplained accidents is worth taking a look at. Early Board of Appeals Decisions denied compensability when the injured could not explain the exact mechanism of accident. In the case of Angelica Portillo v.Motel 6(1), the claimant fell at work and struck her head. Ms. Portillo was unable to state how or why she fell and the Kansas Board of Appeals held that the claimant’s fall did not arise out of her employment. Had Ms. Portillo been able to testify that she lost her balance performing a work activity or slipped on a banana peel, or anything else that would have made her fall somehow connected to a work task she was performing, her case would have been covered including her medical expenses and other associated benefits including monetary compensation. However, her testimony was that she had no idea why she fell only that she did fall. A denial of benefits in this type of scenario no longer seems to be the law in Kansas.

A recent Court of Appeals case held differently. In Bryant v. Midwest Staff SolutionsInc.(2) the Kansas Supreme Court stated: “The proper approach is to focus on whether the injury occurred as a consequence of the broad spectrum of life’s ongoing daily activities, such as chewing or breathing or walking in ways that were not particular to the job, or as a consequence of an event or continuing events specific to the requirements of performing one’s job. “The right to compensation benefits depends on one simple test: was there a work-connected injury?” Even though no bright-line test for whether an injury arising out of employment is possible, the focus of inquiry should be on whether the activity that results in injury is connected to, or is inherent in, the performance of the job. The statutory scheme does not reduce the analysis to an isolated movement such as bending, twisting, lifting, walking or other bodily movements, but looks to the overall context of what the worker was doing such welding, reaching for tools, getting in or out of a vehicle, or engaging in other work-related activities.”

This test of whether there was a work-connected injury has been recently affirmed by another Kansas Supreme Court case Atkins v. Webcon(3) In deciding whether an unexplained fall or unexplained accident arises out of and in the course of employment, the focus is always on what the worker was doing at the time of the accident. The focus should not be on the exact mechanism of the accident or fall but on the work activity being performed when the accident or fall took place. This approach is also seen in the case of Smalley v. Skyy Drilling.(4) Nathan Smalley died from his injuries after the vehicle he was driving struck a tree while driving to a remote job site for his employer. Skyy Drilling appealed the Board of Appeals Decision finding the case compensable and argued that the cause of the accident was never determined and "therefore the Board committed an error when it found that the accident arose out of and in the course of employment. Reiterating the Supreme Court holding in Bryant, the Court threw out this argument and found that the accident occurred when Smalley was traveling to a work assignment and therefore the work-connected to injury test was met and it was not necessary to determine the exact reason for the car accident to make the case compensable. A similar case is Stepter v. LKQ Corporation(5) in which the employer denied Mr. Stepter’s claim when he was on his way to deliver car parts and the truck he was driving which was owned by his employer left the roadway and flipped and caught fire causing significant injuries to Mr. Stepter. It was unknown what caused the accident but it was known that he was performing his work, delivering auto parts, when the accident took place, and therefore it was covered under the Workers Compensation Act. So despite not knowing the exact mechanism of injury, it has been made abundantly clear that if the activity that caused the accident is connected to or inherent in the performance of the claimant’s job then that case will be deemed compensable.

1. WCAB Docket No. 1,066,522 (April, 2015)

2. 292 Kan. 585, 257 P.3d 255 (2015)

3. 308 Kan. 92, 419 P.3d 1, 6 (2018)

4. 353 P. 3d 469 (unpublished opinion) ( Kansas Court of Appeals June 26, 2015)

5. 404 P.3d 357 (unpublished opinion) (Kansas Court of Appeals October 6, 2017)


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