A particularly noteworthy case was recently decided by the Appellate Division on November 20, 2015. This case, Colleen Fitzgerald v. Walmart, is so interesting because the Court found that the worker’s injured condition did not qualify as a work related injury simply because she felt a “pop” in her low back while walking at work.
The Petitioner, Colleen Fitzgerald, filed a claim for an accident that occurred on April 26, 2010, while she was working for Walmart. She stated that she was merely walking in the store and felt a “pop” in her low back. While at the time of the claim Ms. Fitzgerald said she felt the pop she was not doing anything other than walking, later testimony revealed that at some time prior to the incident she had been doing some lifting at work in her position as a zone merchandise supervisor.
She reported the accident to her manager, and after seeing her family doctor who diagnosed her with protruding lumbar discs, she took FMLA for 12 weeks and a leave of absence while she received treatment. She did return to work at Walmart for a period of time, however because she then had another non-work related slip and fall accident where she broke her elbow, she was ultimately terminated from her job at Walmart. There was never any authorized treatment provided by the Workers’ Compensation carrier for Walmart.
Petitioner filed two claim petitions, one for the specific incident that occurred on April 26th and an occupational claim for work she did from December 2008 through April 2010. Since Walmart denied both claims, petitioner filed a Motion for Medical and Temporary Disability benefits with the Workers’ Compensation Court. The Motion was heard by Judge Gangloff, who found in favor of Walmart, as did the Appellate Division on appeal.
In the trial before Judge Gangloff, both sides called medical experts to testify. Petitioner’s expert, Dr. Gaffney, testified that in his opinion petitioner’s injury was caused by her work at Walmart, while Respondent’s expert, Dr. Meeteer felt that the injury was not related.
The Appellate Division upheld Judge Gangloff’s decision under Close v. Kordulak and held that they found no reason to disturb his well-reasoned findings. They stated that the Judge reviewed the applicable case law and applied the two step “positional risk test” for determining whether the injury arose out of the course of employment. The first part of this test requires the petitioner to prove that “but for” the fact of employment the injury would not have happened. The next part of the test is to analyze the “nature of the risk” that caused the injury.
In this case, the Court concluded that that the petitioner failed to satisfy the first part of the test because “the facts here do not establish that the petitioner would not have been exposed to the risk if she had not been at work.” In other words, as she was simply walking when she felt the “pop” in her back, the back injury could have just as easily occurred while she was not at work. According Judge Gangloff, “she could have been walking anywhere at the time of onset of pain.” He found that there was nothing about the workplace that contributed to petitioner’s injuries. The Judge did not find that petitioner had a compensable occupational claim either, because the medical records did not support Dr. Gaffney’s opinion that her condition was somehow related to a progressive occupational condition.