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Recent Appellate Court Decisions
In Noonan v. IWCC, 1-15-2300 WC (1st Dist. 2016), the Workers’ Compensation Division of the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the IWCC decision which had found the Petitioner failed to meet his burden of proving a compensable accident.
In Noonan, the Petitioner was a clerk for a trucking company. He answered the phone and filled out truck driver sheets. While filling out a truck sheet, the Petitioner accidentally dropped his pen on the floor. The Petitioner was sitting on a wheeled chair. The Petitioner placed his left hand on the desk and reached for the pen with his right hand. As the Petitioner’s right hand got close to the pen, the wheeled chair went out from under him and the Petitioner stuck out his right hand to brace his fall. The Petitioner eventually required surgery for an injury to his right wrist.
The Arbitrator held the Petitioner failed to prove his right wrist injury arose out of his employment. Benefits were denied. The Arbitrator determined the Petitioner failed to prove that sitting in a rolling chair and reaching for a pen exposed him to a risk of injury beyond what members of the general public are exposed to. The Arbitrator’s denial of benefits was affirmed by the IWCC.
The Petitioner appealed to the circuit court. Judge Robert Lopez Cepero of the Circuit Court of Cook County reversed the IWCC decision and remanded the matter back to the IWCC for an award of benefits.
The IWCC issued a new decision. The IWCC continued to affirm the Arbitrator’s denial of benefits. The IWCC provided additional reasoning for its finding that the Petitioner failed to prove that his right wrist injury arose out of his employment.
The Petitioner sought another judicial review to the circuit court. The circuit court held that its first remand order was of no consequence and that the Commission’s decision should have been affirmed the first time and was affirmed again. The issue before the appellate court is whether the IWCC's first decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence.
The appellate court held that the IWCC’s original decision was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. The IWCC refused to issue a decision finding the accident compensable even though directed to do so by the circuit court. The IWCC determined that the circuit court did not use on the correct legal standard when reviewing the IWCC’s decision the first time. The appellate court held the IWCC cannot simply ignore the circuit court’s remand order. The IWCC has no discretion but to enter a new decision as directed by the circuit court.
The circuit court acted without authority when it determined that its first decision was of no consequence and that the IWCC decision should have been upheld. The circuit court does not have the authority to address previous orders entered by the circuit court or by the IWCC.
The appellate court’s analysis starts with whether the IWCC's first decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence. Whether an injury arises out of and in the course of the Petitioner’s employment is a question of fact to be resolved by the IWCC. This decision will not be overturned unless it is against the manifest weight of the evidence. The IWCC’s fact-finding is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence only when the opposite conclusion is clearly apparent. In order to show that an accident is arising out of the Petitioner’s employment, the Petitioner needs to show that the injury had its origin in some risk connected with the employment. If the injury results from a hazard to which the employee would have been equally exposed apart from the employment or a risk personal to the employee, it is not compensable.
An employee can be exposed to:
Employment related risks are compensable, while personal risks are not.
The Petitioner was injured at work when the rolling chair he was sitting on went out from underneath him when he reached to retrieve a dropped pen. The act of reaching to the floor while sitting in a chair was not required by Petitioner’s job duties. The risk of injury was not distinctly associated with Petitioner’s employment. The risk of falling from a chair while reaching to the floor is one which the Petitioner would have been equally exposed to apart from his work from the employer. The appellate court determined that reaching for a pen on the floor is a neutral risk. It is compensable only when the Petitioner established he was quantitatively or qualitatively exposed to a risk to a greater degree than the general public. There was no evidence presented as to any defective condition on the employer’s premises which would have contributed to the claimant’s injury. The risk posed from reaching for a pen while sitting in a rolling chair is no greater than if the Petitioner had been reaching to retrieve a personal object. The Petitioner’s employment did not expose him to a neutral risk to a greater degree than the general public. The Petitioner’s action of bending over or reaching while seated in a work chair without more is insufficient to establish a work-related cause to his accidental injury.
Editor’s Note: Even if the circuit court’s remand order is erroneous, the IWCC must comply with the circuit court’s remand order and issue the decision directed by the circuit court. In this case, the Petitioner failed to prove an increased risk from reaching down to the floor to pick up a pen. Reaching down to the floor to pick up an item is an activity routinely performed by the general public. As mentioned in the decision, the appellate court reviews the IWCC’s first decision to determine if it is against the manifest weight of the evident before considering the decision on remand. If the IWCC’s original decision was not against the manifest weight of the evidence, it will be upheld despite the circuit court’s remand order.