"The Ever-Evolving Idiopathic Defense"

Risk Management

Headshot of Emily TruittIn an article published by Risk Management, Emily Truitt provided insight on idiopathic defense, traditionally meaning that if the cause of a workplace injury is unknown, it should not be deemed work-related. Although workers' compensation is considered a no-fault system, the idiopathic defense can provide employers with protection from injuries incurred in the workplace that are not truly causally connected to work.

The seminal case citing this defense, Chaparral Boats Inc. v. Health, arrived in the Court of Appeals of Georgia in 2004. The employee in question was in the act of walking across her employer’s premises to clock in when she experienced a pop in her knee. The facts showed that she did not trip or fall as a result of a workplace condition, nor did she encounter any object. The court concluded that the injury did not arise out of her employment because she had only engaged in walking, which she was equally exposed to regardless of her employment, and her claim was thus not compensable. However, the case of Cartersville City Schools, et al. v. Johnson, has caused some recent confusion. A school teacher was instructing her students when she walked back to her desk to utilize the smartboard, during which she fell and injured her knee. The Court of Appeals of Georgia awarded benefits in this instance, though the facts aligned with other cases that were held to be not compensable. This decision muddies the water with regard to the idiopathic defense in Georgia.

Given the nature of uncertainly in the courts regarding idiopathic injuries, the best practice is for employers to analyze every case and its individual facts. With respect to situations that could potentially involve the idiopathic defense, it is important to ask questions like:

  1. Did the accident involve a fall?
  2. Was the reason the employee fell explained?
  3. Did the employee strike an object on the way down?
  4. Can a causal connection be made between the work and injury?

“For states allowing the idiopathic defense, an employer familiar with these types of injuries can potentially reduce its overall exposure by asking the right questions at the outset of the claim.”

For the full article, please click here.


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