GERALD A. PRATT, Employee/Appellant, v. MINNESOTA TEX INVS., and APCAPITAL GROUP, Employer-Insurer.
WORKERS= COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
SEPTEMBER 19, 2005
ARISING OUT OF & IN THE COURSE OF - SPECIAL HAZARD. Where the judge reasonably concluded that the quarter- to half-inch rubber floor mat from which the employee was stepping at work when his knee gave out did not represent a special hazard or increased risk related to the employee=s work, and where the only connection between the employment and the injury was the fact that the injury occurred on the employer=s premises during work hours, the compensation judge=s conclusion that the employee=s injury, although in the course of his employment, did not arise out of his employment was not clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence.
Determined by: Pederson, J., Rykken, J., and Johnson, C.J.
Compensation Judge: Carol A Eckersen
Attorneys: David R. Vail, Soderberg & Vail, Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellant. Brad R. Kolling, Cousineau, McGuire & Anderson, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondents.
WILLIAM R. PEDERSON, Judge
The employee appeals from the compensation judge=s finding that his right knee injury of July 17, 2003, did not arise out of his employment. We affirm.
On July 17, 2003, Gerald A. Pratt [the employee] was employed by Minn. Tex Investments [the employer] as an assistant manager at an oil changing facility. On that date, the employee was twenty-nine years old and was earning a weekly wage of $299.90. As assistant manager, the employee=s duties involved changing oil, customer relations, and opening and closing the store. Prior to July 17, 2003, the employee had never experienced any problems with his right knee.
On the morning of July 17, 2003, in the course and scope of his employment, the employee greeted a customer at bay two of the facility and then proceeded to a computer to enter the necessary customer information. While at the computer stand, the employee stood on a quarter- to half-inch rubber stress relief mat. After entering the required data, the employee turned to walked away. As he stepped either off the mat or onto the edge of the mat, he felt a pop in his right knee and felt pain. A First Report of Injury completed by the employee himself shortly after the incident indicates that AGerry was walking off rubber mat caught edge wrong knee snaped@ (sic). The entire incident was caught on a surveillance videotape. The employee did not trip, slip, or fall as he walked off the mat. A co-worker heard the pop and asked the employee if he was all right. Despite the pain in his knee, the employee continued to work because he was the only management person available.
Following his work shift, the employee sought treatment at the Duluth Clinic, where he was seen by Dr. Jesse Leahy. Dr. Leahy recorded the following history regarding the employee=s injury:
This patient is a 29 Y/O male presenting today with a workers= comp injury. He states he simply was walking at Valvoline where he works, and as he stepped off a rubber mat, he believes he hit the edge. He doesn=t really think he tripped. In any case, his right knee gave out, and he fell.
The doctor diagnosed a right knee sprain and took the employee off work. On that same date, Dr. Leahy completed two standard forms regarding the employee=s condition, answering Ayes@ on both forms to questions as to whether there was a relationship between the employee=s injury and his employment, explaining that Awalking off rubber mat R knee gave out.@
The employee continued to treat with Dr. Leahy, and on August 11, 2003, Dr. Leahy prescribed physical therapy and referred him for an MRI scan. The workers= compensation insurer had denied liability, however, and refused authorization for the treatment. At the employee=s next visit on September 8, 2003, Dr. Leahy fitted the employee with a knee brace that had a hinged knee component, and on October 7, 2003, she gave the employee, who was concerned that he would lose his job if he had restrictions, exercises to do in lieu of physical therapy and released him to return to work without restrictions. Pursuant to the parties= stipulation at trial, the employee was temporarily totally disabled from July 17, 2003, through October 17, 2003, as a result of his right knee condition.
On October 28, 2003, the employee filed a claim petition seeking payment for temporary total disability benefits from July 17, 2003, through October 16, 2003, and for temporary partial disability benefits continuing from October 17, 2003. The employee also sought coverage for his medical care and for consultation with a QRC.
On April 26, 2004, the employee returned to the Duluth Clinic and was seen by his primary family physician, Dr. Robert Chalgren. In the Aassessment@ portion of his office note, Dr. Chalgren described the employee=s injury as follows: ABy description, internal derangement right knee, suspect he had an anterior cruciate tear with the type of injury he is describing, i.e. getting up suddenly and putting his weight down and having a loud snap and then a subsequently markedly swollen knee.@ Dr. Chalgren also recommended an MRI scan, physical therapy, and continued use of the knee brace. In a letter to the employee=s attorney dated June 2, 2004, Dr. Chalgren stated that he agreed that the employee=s knee injury Ais a work-related injury.@
The employee was seen in orthopedic consultation by Dr. Leonard Jennings on July 15, 2004. Dr. Jennings reported that the employee=s knee gave out while at work on July 17, 2003. ASomething kind of snapped. He didn=t quite hit the ground, he caught himself. . . . When he fell back in July 2003 he had a definite snap and pain on the medial side of the knee.@ An MRI scan completed on July 9, 2004, revealed internal derangement with a torn body and posterior horn of the medial meniscus and some mild chondromalacia changes. Dr. Jennings recommended arthroscopic surgery and continued use of the brace. He concluded that Aby history this is work related.@
The employee=s claims ultimately came on for hearing before a compensation judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings on February 24, 2005. The primary issue presented to the judge was whether the employee=s injury on July 17, 2003, had arisen out of and in the course of the employee=s employment with the employer. In a Findings and Order issued April 25, 2005, the judge found that, although the employee was in the course of his employment at the time of the injury, the employee had failed to sustain his burden of proving that his injury has arisen out of his employment. Accordingly, the judge concluded that the employee was not entitled to workers= compensation benefits. The employee appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
On appeal, the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals must determine whether "the findings of fact and order [are] clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted." Minn. Stat. ' 176.421, subd. 1 (2004). Substantial evidence supports the findings if, in the context of the entire record, "they are supported by evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 59, 37 W.C.D. 235, 239 (Minn. 1984). Where evidence conflicts or more than one inference may reasonably be drawn from the evidence, the findings are to be affirmed. Id. at 60, 37 W.C.D. at 240. Similarly, findings of fact should not be disturbed, even though the reviewing court might disagree with them, "unless they are clearly erroneous in the sense that they are manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence or not reasonably supported by the evidence as a whole.@ Northern States Power Co. v. Lyon Food Prods., Inc., 304 Minn. 196, 201, 229 N.W.2d 521, 524 (1975).
Under Minnesota workers= compensation law, a personal injury is defined as an Ainjury arising out of and in the course of employment.@ Minn. Stat. ' 176.011, subd. 16. Whereas the Ain the course of@ requirement essentially implies a time and place connection between the injury at issue and the normal hours and premises of the employee=s employment, the Aarising out of@ requirement essentially implies a causal connection between that injury and the work activity, although Anot necessarily in the proximate cause sense.@ Gibberd v. Control Data Corp., 424 N.W.2d 776, 780, 40 W.C.D. 1040, 1047 (Minn. 1988); see also Lange v. Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro. Airport Comm'n, 257 Minn. 54, 99 N.W.2d 915, 21 W.C.D. 61 (1959). The requisite causal connection Aexists if the employment, by reason of its nature, obligations, or incidents may reasonably be found to be the source of the injury-producing hazard.@ Nelson v. City of St. Paul, 249 Minn. 53, 55, 81 N.W.2d 272, 275, 19 W.C.D. 120, 123 (1957). Whether an injury arose out of and in the course of employment is generally a fact question for the compensation judge, Franze v. National Delivery Serv., 49 W.C.D. 148, 155 (W.C.C.A. 1993), and the burden of proof is on the employee/claimant. Minn. Stat. ' 176.021, subd. 1. In Bohlin v. St. Louis County/Nopeming Nursing Home, this court reviewed Minnesota case law and discussed at length the tests used for determining whether an injury arises out of the employment. See Bohlin v. St. Louis County/Nopeming Nursing Home, 61 W.C.D. 69 (W.C.C.A. 2000). There we stated,
In the United States, and in Minnesota, the primary test for determining whether an injury arises out of the employment is the Aincreased risk@ test. This test requires a showing that the Ainjury was caused by an increased risk to which the claimant, as distinct from the general public, was subjected by his or her employment.@ 1 A. Larson and L.K. Larson, Workers= Compensation Law, ' 3.00 (1999). In Minnesota, the supreme court has stated, A[t]he >arising out of= requirement refers to the causal connection between the employment and the injury. This requirement requires a showing of some hazard that increases the employee=s exposure to injury beyond that of the general public.@ Kirchner v. County of Anoka, 339 N.W.2d 908, 911, 36 W.C.D. 335, 33 (Minn. 1983). The injury need not be peculiar to the employment, so long as the injury-producing risk or hazard has its origin or source in the employment. See Larson, ' 3.00; Breimhorst v. Beckman, 227 Minn. 409, 35 N.W.2d 719, 15 W.C.D. 395 (1949).
Bohlin, 61 W.C.D. at 72.
In the memorandum accompanying her Findings and Order, the compensation judge discussed the employee=s burden of establishing the necessary work connection between his injuries and the alleged employment-related risk that caused his injury. The judge concluded,
The employee here seems to argue that stepping from the mat was the object that constituted an increased risk leading to Mr. Pratt=s injury. The mat is one-quarter to one-half inch thick. The employee=s testimony and the statements to his treating doctors are inconsistent on whether Mr. Pratt stepped off the mat or stepped on the edge of the mat. The employee=s testimony was that he did not trip, twist, or turn as a result of taking that step. The employee did not show how stepping off or at the edge of the mat was an employment related risk that caused his injury.
On appeal, the employee argues that it is undisputed that he was within the course and scope of his employment at the time of his injury. He argues also that there is undisputed medical evidence that the injury substantially contributed to the employee=s ongoing knee problems. He contends that, Aalthough the judge attempts to >flyspeck= the medical evidence, there is really no evidence to the contrary. It is axiomatic that a compensation judge is not free to disregard uncontroverted medical evidence.@ We are not persuaded.
Although, under Flansburg v. Giza, 284 Minn. 199, 201-02, 169 N.W.2d 744, 746, 25 W.C.D. 3, 6 (1969), unopposed expert medical testimony cannot be disregarded, such testimony is not necessarily conclusive upon the trier of fact. Tuomela v. Reserve Mining Co., 299 Minn. 203, 204, 216 N.W.2d 638, 639, 27 W.C.D. 312, 313 (1974). Here, the compensation judge clearly considered the employee=s medical evidence and found it to be lacking in substance as to how the alleged injury-producing risk or hazard had its origin or source in the employment. The judge concluded that,
[T]he records from [the] Duluth Clinic do not include any clarification of how or where Mr. Pratt stepped, discussion of the mechanism of injury or explanation of the causation opinions. The physicians offering opinions only state their conclusions that this was a work-related injury. The employee has not shown that the employee=s act of stepping had a causal connection to a risk inherent to the employment. The employee has not shown that the work injury arose out of his employment.
The judge obviously did not find a quarter- to half-inch floor mat to represent an injury-producing hazard. Nor do we. An injury may be incurred in the course of the employment and still have no causal connection with it. The fact that the injury may be a substantial contributing factor in the employee=s ongoing knee problems has no bearing on the injury=s connection to the work environment. We agree with the compensation judge=s assessment that the only connection between the employment and the injury in this case was the fact that the injury occurred on the employer=s premises. We conclude that the evidence is sufficient to support the judge=s decision in this matter, and, accordingly, we affirm that decision. Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 37 W.C.D. 235 (Minn. 1984).
 As assistant manager.