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Civil Litigation FLASHPOINTS February 2021

Conor McDonough, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, Chicago
312-902-5310 | E-mail Conor McDonough

Illinois Supreme Court: Injuries Attributable to Everyday Activity Compensable Under Workers’ Compensation Act

In McAllister v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2020 IL 124848, the Illinois Supreme Court expanded the scope of compensable injuries under the Workers’ Compensation Act, 820 ILCS 305/1, et seq. The Illinois Supreme Court addressed the following issues on appeal from the Workers’ Compensation Commission Division of the Illinois Appellate Court: (1) whether an employee’s injuries sustained while performing everyday activities or common bodily movements are compensable; and (2) if so, how to determine when such injuries “arise out of” the claimant’s employment for purposes of compensation. The Supreme Court answered the first question in the affirmative, ruling that such injuries “arise out of” a claimant’s employment, and found that such injuries are compensable if the claimant was performing a job-related task that his or her employer might reasonably expect him or her to perform incident to his or her assigned duties.

Facts of the Case

Claimant Kevin McAllister worked as a sous-chef for a Chicago-area restaurant. As a sous-chef, his duties included checking in orders, arranging and maintaining the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, making sauces, and preparing and cooking food. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶4. While setting up his station for the evening shift, the claimant’s coworker informed him that he had misplaced a pan of carrots in the walk-in cooler. The claimant entered the walk-in cooler to locate the missing dish. While kneeling on both knees, he checked the top, middle, and bottom shelves for the missing carrots. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶5.

As he attempted to stand up from his kneeling position, the claimant felt his right knee “pop.” His knee “locked up,” and he could not straighten it. The claimant then hopped into his boss’s office to report what happened. The restaurant’s general manager drove the claimant to the hospital emergency room. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶6. A medical evaluation revealed that the claimant had torn his medial meniscus, requiring surgery. The claimant paid for his treatment out-of-pocket and did not receive any workers’ compensation benefits while he was off work for over a month. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶¶8 – 11.

Proof Required To Obtain Compensation Under the Workers’ Compensation Act

Two elements must be present for a claimant to be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act. See also Orsini v. Industrial Commission, 117 Ill.2d 38, 509 N.E.2d 1005, 1008, 109 Ill.Dec. 166 (1987). The injury must (1) “aris[e] out of” and (2) occur “in the course of” the claimant’s employment. 820 ILCS 305/1(d). See also Illinois Bell Telephone Co. v. Industrial Commission, 131 Ill.2d 478, 546 N.E.2d 603, 605, 137 Ill.Dec. 658 (1989). In McAllister, the second element was undisputed, and the court focused its analysis entirely on the first element: whether a compensable injury can “aris[e] out of” an everyday activity or common bodily movement, such as standing up from a kneeling position.

Procedural Background

The claimant pursued arbitration, seeking disability benefits and medical expenses. At the arbitration, the claimant testified to the above events. He further testified that his kneeling position on the floor of the walk-in cooler was like the position he would be in if he were looking for something underneath his bed and that he was not holding anything in his hands at the time he attempted to stand up. The arbitrator awarded the claimant disability benefits, finding that claimant’s act of kneeling on the floor of a walk-in cooler was an act that his employer “reasonably could have expected [him] to perform in order to fulfill his duties as a sous-chef.” 2020 IL 124848 at ¶¶10 – 14.

The Workers’ Compensation Commission reversed the arbitrator’s decision, finding that the claimant failed to prove that his knee injury “arose out of” his employment. The Commission reasoned that the claimant was subjected to a “neutral risk,” which had “no particular employment or personal characteristics,” and thus his injury was not compensable under the Act. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶16. The Circuit Court of Cook County affirmed the Commission’s findings, agreeing that the claimant’s act of standing up from a kneeling position was a “neutral risk” that did not expose him to any more risk than the general public. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶18.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed that the claimant was not injured due to an employment-related risk and that the Commission’s decision was not against the manifest weight of the evidence. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶20. The appellate court split, however, on whether a compensable injury can arise out of an employee’s employment when the employee is injured while performing job tasks that involve “common bodily movements or routine ‘everyday activities’ such as bending, twisting, reaching, or standing up from a kneeling position.” Id.

The appellate majority cited Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Industrial Commission, 129 Ill.2d 52, 541 N.E.2d 665, 133 Ill.Dec. 454 (1989), for the proposition that an injury “arises out of” a claimant’s employment for purposes of the Act if the claimant was performing an act that his or her employer might reasonably expect him or her to perform incident to employment or causally connected to what the claimant must do to fulfill his or her assigned job duties. The majority found this to be the case “even if the act [giving rise to the injury] involves an everyday activity.” 2020 IL 124848 at ¶21.

The concurring justices disagreed, opining that an injury sustained while performing an everyday activity or common bodily movement, such as standing up from a kneeling position, is only compensable if the claimant can establish that his or her job duties require him or her to perform that everyday activity or bodily movement “to a greater degree than the general public.” 2020 IL 124848 at ¶22, citing Adcock v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, 2015 IL App (2d) 130884WC, 38 N.E.3d 587, 395 Ill.Dec. 401.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s Analysis

The Supreme Court focused its analysis on the “arising out of” component of a compensable injury under the Act. To satisfy this component, the claimant must show that the injury had its origin in some risk connected with, or incident to, his or her employment to create a causal connection between the employment and the accidental injury. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶36.

Illinois caselaw recognizes three categories of risk to which a claimant may be exposed: (1) risks distinctly associated with the employment (“employment-related risks”); (2) risks personal to the employee; and (3) neutral risks “which have no particular employment or personal characteristics.” 2020 IL 124848 at ¶38, quoting Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute v. Industrial Commission, 314 Ill.App.3d 149, 731 N.E.2d 795, 806, 247 Ill.Dec. 22 (1st Dist. 2000).

The first category — “employment-related risks” — includes obvious kinds of industrial injuries and occupational diseases, such as falling on slippery ground at the employer’s worksite. Caterpillar Tractor, supra, outlines the three types of “employment-related acts” that fall under this first category of risk. Pursuant to Caterpillar Tractor, a risk constitutes an “employment-related risk” if, at the time of the injury, the employee was performing (1) acts he or she was instructed to perform by the employer, (2) acts he or she had a common-law or statutory duty to perform, or (3) acts that the employee “might reasonably be expected to perform incident to his or her assigned duties.” These injuries are universally compensated. McAllister, supra, 2020 IL 124848 at ¶40, citing Caterpillar Tractor, supra, 541 N.E.2d at 667.

The second category includes injuries caused by personal infirmities such as a “trick knee” and are generally not compensable. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶42, quoting Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, supra, 731 N.E.2d at 806. The third category, neutral risks, includes stray bullets, lightning strikes, and other risks unrelated to the employment. Injuries arising from neutral risks are generally not compensable under the Act. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶44.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Commission’s finding that the claimant’s accidental knee injury was the result of a neutral risk. Rather, the court found that his knee injury arose out of an “employment-related risk” because the knee injury was caused by one of the risks distinctly associated with his duties as a sous-chef. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶47. The evidence established that the claimant was responsible for arranging the restaurant’s walk-in cooler and that he had a duty to find misplaced food kept therein. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶51. In kneeling down on both knees to search for the missing carrots and subsequently standing up from that kneeling position, the claimant was “performing an act his employer might reasonably expect him to perform” incident to his assigned duties. Id. As such, his knee injury “arose out of” his employment as a sous-chef. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶52.

The court then considered the peculiar nature of the claimant’s injury. Having found that his injury “arose out of” his employment because it arose from an employment-related risk, the Supreme Court then analyzed “whether a compensable injury can ‘arise out of’ an employee’s employment when the employee was injured performing job duties that involve common bodily movements or everyday activities.” [Emphasis added.] 2020 IL 124848 at ¶58.

The Supreme Court answered in the affirmative, holding that Caterpillar Tractor prescribes the proper test for determining whether an injury “arises out of” a claimant’s employment when the claimant is injured while performing a job task involving common bodily movements or everyday activities, such as standing up from a kneeling position. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶60. The three-pronged Caterpillar Tractor test, outlined above,makes it clear that injuries sustained while performing common bodily movements and everyday activities are compensable and employment related as long as the common bodily movement giving rise to the injury had its origin in some risk connected with, or incident to, the employment so as to create a causal connection between the employment and the accidental injury. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶63. This is the case when, as here, the claimant was performing a job-related task that his employer might reasonably expect him to perform incident to his assigned duties.

Effect of the Case

In holding that injuries attributable to common bodily movements are compensable if they “arise out of” an employee’s job duties, this opinion will likely engender more litigation and result in greater access to workers’ compensation awards for claimants who are injured on the job. Furthermore, in holding that Caterpillar Tractor, supra, prescribes the proper test for analyzing whether a common bodily movement injury “arises out of” a claimant’s employment, this opinion overturns a substantial number of Illinois workers’ compensation caselaw.

Adcock, supra, and its progeny — cited by the appellate court concurring justices — are now overruled to the extent that they require a neutral-risk analysis to determine whether a claimant’s job requires him or her to perform a common bodily movement more frequently than members of the general public. 2020 IL 124848 at ¶68. Once a claimant establishes that his or her common bodily movement injury is employment related under Caterpillar Tractor, the claimant need not present additional evidence.

For more information about civil litigation, see CAUSES OF ACTION: REAL PROPERTY ACTIONS (IICLE®, 2021). Online Library subscribers can view it for free by clicking here. If you don’t currently subscribe to the Online Library, visit www.iicle.com/subscriptions.

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