An untied shoelace leads to a worker’s comp claim

Karen Sheehan//March 24, 2014

An untied shoelace leads to a worker’s comp claim

Karen Sheehan//March 24, 2014

Karen SheehanThe Idaho Supreme Court recently affirmed the Idaho Industrial Commission’s determination that Michael Vawter, a former delivery driver for United Parcel Service (UPS), was entitled to worker’s compensation benefits when he injured his back while tying his boots at work. Based on this case, it may be difficult for an employer to argue that an injury that occurred on the employer’s premises did not arise out of the employee’s employment.

Mr. Vawter worked as a delivery driver for UPS in Cascade. After clocking in on the morning of December 18, 2009, he sat down and bent over to tie his boot laces. While bending over he felt a pop and pain in his lower back. He sought medical treatment and eventually underwent two back surgeries.

Mr. Vawter filed a worker’s compensation complaint with the Idaho Industrial Commission alleging he suffered a low back injury due to an accident that arose out of and in the course of his employment with UPS. UPS denied the claim. The parties agreed that the injury occurred during the course of Mr. Vawter’s employment. However, there was a dispute as to whether the injury arose out of Mr. Vawter’s employment with UPS.

Under Idaho law, when an injury occurs on an employer’s premises, a presumption arises that the injury arose out of the employee’s employment. UPS rebutted this presumption by arguing that Mr. Vawter’s back injury – which occurred when he bent over to tie his boot laces – was a common risk with no particular association to his employment with UPS. Mr. Vawter argued that anyone whose job included carrying boxes all day would do well to keep his shoes tied. In addition, UPS had a “no loose or dangling parts” shoe policy which prohibited employees like Mr. Vawter from leaving shoe laces unsecured.

The Idaho Industrial Commission held and the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed that (a) Mr. Vawter needed to have his boots tied to perform his work, and (b) the injury that resulted from performing this task was connected to his employment. Mr. Vawter tied his shoe laces for UPS’ benefit and the accident causing his back injury arose out of his employment. Consequently, Mr. Vawter was entitled to worker’s compensation benefits.

UPS then attempted to shift some of its payment obligations to the Idaho State Insurance Fund (ISIF). Under Idaho’s worker’s compensation scheme, when an employee becomes totally and permanently disabled as a result of an industrial injury and there is a preexisting permanent impairment, the employer is liable only for the disability caused by the recent injury; the ISIF is liable for the remainder.

Mr. Vawter had a work-related injury stemming from an accident in 1990. He was also a UPS employee at that time. After the 2009 accident, Mr. Vawter received a 19 percent impairment rating. The Commission apportioned 12 percent to the 2009 injury and 7 percent to the 1990 injury.

Normally, ISIF would be liable for payment of Mr. Vawter’s benefits stemming from the 7 percent rating. However, UPS was stopped from claiming Mr. Vawter had any impairment rating from the 1990 accident; since back in 1990 it did not pay any benefits to Mr. Vawter (UPS’ physician for the 1990 injury had given a 0 percent impairment rating). The court held that an employer cannot take inconsistent positions regarding impairment ratings between two worker’s compensation claims as a way to shift part of the burden of payment to the ISIF. UPS was responsible for paying the entire claim.

Employers should review all policies to make sure they may not lead to a worker’s compensation claim. (i.e. UPS’ policy that shoes must be tied). Also, be aware that an employer cannot take inconsistent positions on impairment ratings when an employee suffers from more than one industrial-related injury.

 Karen Sheehan is a trial attorney at Gjording Fouser PLLC. You can learn more about her practice and the firm by visiting gfidaholaw.com.