LAURIE A. ROLLER-DICK, Employee/Appellant, v. CENTRACARE HEALTH SYS. and SFM MUT. COS., Employer-Insurer/Respondents.

OCTOBER 19, 2017

No. WC17-6051

ARISING OUT OF & IN THE COURSE OF. That the employee was injured as a result of losing her footing and falling while descending a flight of stairs located on her employer’s premises is sufficient to meet her burden to show the requisite causal connection to conclude that the injury arose out of employment.

    Determined by:
  1. David A. Stofferahn, Judge
  2. Patricia J. Milun, Chief Judge
  3. Gary M. Hall, Judge

Compensation Judge: Sandra J. Grove

Attorneys: Raymond R. Peterson, McCoy Peterson, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the Appellant. Kristen L. Ohlsen and Jacob R. Colling, Aafedt, Forde, Gray, Monson, & Hager, P.A. Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the Respondents.

Reversed and remanded.



The employee appeals the compensation judge’s determination that her injury did not arise out of her employment. We reverse and remand.


The employee, Laurie Roller-Dick, was employed as a payor relations specialist for CentraCare Health System and worked in its administrative offices on the second floor of the employer’s building. At the end of her workday on January 7, 2016, Ms. Roller-Dick used a stairway to leave the second floor to go to the first floor, and then exit out a nearby door to access her vehicle in the adjacent parking lot. While descending a flight of about ten stairs, she slipped at the second step and fell to the bottom of the flight, fracturing her left ankle. The floor covering of the stairs was rubber, and hand railings were located on either side of the stairs. Ms. Roller-Dick did not use the railings initially. She had a purse hanging from the crook of her elbow and she was using both hands to carry a plant. During her fall, Ms. Roller-Dick dropped the plant and grabbed one of the railings as she fell down the stairs. At the time of the fall, Ms. Roller-Dick was wearing rubber-soled shoes. She testified at the hearing that the reason for her fall was that “I feel that the rubber on the bottom of my shoe stuck to the rubber surface of the stair material.” Evidence and testimony presented at hearing established that there was no water present on the stairs, nor were the stairs otherwise defective or non-compliant with building codes or OSHA standards.

The employer and insurer denied the employee’s claim, alleging that her January 7, 2016, injury did not arise out of her employment. The employee filed a claim petition, and the matter came on for hearing before a compensation judge on January 31, 2017. In her Findings and Order dated February 21, 2017, Compensation Judge Sandra Grove denied the employee’s claim, finding that the injury did not arise out of her employment. The employee appeals.


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(3). 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 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).

A decision which rests upon the application of a statute or rule to essentially undisputed facts generally involves a question of law which the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals may consider de novo. Krovchuk v. Koch Oil Refinery, 48 W.C.D. 607, 608 (W.C.C.A. 1993), summarily aff’d (Minn. June 3, 1993).


There is no dispute as to the factual findings made by the compensation judge. The parties in this case agreed that Ms. Roller-Dick was in the course of her employment when she was injured. The only issue before the compensation judge, and before this court, is whether on the facts as presented, the injury arose out of her employment.

An employer is responsible for “compensation in every case of personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment without regard to negligence.” Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1. “[A] causal connection – not necessarily in the proximate cause sense – must exist between the injury and the employment. The very words ‘arising out of’ connote a causal connection, whereas ‘in the course of’ refers to the time, place, and circumstances of the incident causing the injury.” Gibberd v. Control Data Corp., 424 N.W.2d 776, 780, 40 W.C.D. 1040, 1047 (Minn. 1988) (citations omitted).

The Minnesota Supreme Court in Dykhoff v. Xcel Energy, 840 N.W.2d 821, 73 W.C.D. 865 (Minn. 2013), reiterated the rule in Minnesota that for the causal connection identified in Gibberd to be met, there must be an increased risk of injury to an employee as the result of employment. A “causal connection ‘is supplied if the employment exposes the employee to a hazard which originates on the premises as a part of the working environment, or … peculiarly exposes the employee to an external hazard whereby he is subjected to a different and a greater risk than if he had been pursuing his ordinary personal affairs.’” Dykoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826, 73 W.C.D. at 871 (quoting Nelson v. City of St. Paul, 249 Minn. 53, 55-56, 81 N.W.2d 272, 275, 19 W.C.D. 120, 123 (1957)).

Here, the compensation judge denied that the employee’s injury arose out of employment because she failed to establish that her risk of injury on the stairs on the employer’s premises was any greater than “she would face in her everyday life.” (Memorandum, p. 6.) This is not the correct test. Because the injury occurred on the employer’s premises, the question is whether, on these facts, the employee encountered an increased risk of injury from a hazard which originated on the employer’s premises.

In Dykhoff, the court cited to earlier cases which used “hazard” in discussing increased risk. As in the present case, use of that word has given rise to an argument that the employee must establish a defect on the employer’s premises, or failure by the employer to comply with various codes, in order for an increased risk to be found. That legal analysis is incorrect for two reasons. First, the statute provides that because an employee’s rights to collect damages beyond those provided by workers compensation are limited, “employers’ rights to raise common law defenses such as lack of negligence, contributory negligence on the part of the employee, and others, are curtailed as well.” Minn. Stat. § 176.001. Second, a “hazard” is not defined as being itself a danger, but as “a possible source of peril, danger, duress, or difficulty.”[1]

In Dykhoff, the employee’s unexplained fall and resulting injury occurred on a flat, dry, non-slippery floor in a hallway of the employer’s premises. The court found no increased risk of injury in those circumstances. Rather than an increased risk, the employer’s premises constituted a neutral risk. In contrast, using stairs is not a neutral risk. If using stairs was a neutral risk, stairways would not have handrails for persons ascending and descending stairs.

Subsequent to the filing of the Findings and Order in this matter, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued its opinion in Hohlt v. Univ. of Minn., 897 N.W.2d 777 (Minn. 2017). Therein, the court clarified its holding in Dykhoff. In Hohlt, the employee was injured when she fell on an icy sidewalk while moving between her employer’s premises. The court’s majority distinguished Dykhoff, explaining that because Ms. Dykhoff fell on a clean floor, her injury was an unexplained injury, whereas Ms. Hohlt’s fall was explained as she fell on an icy sidewalk. Id. at 783. Applying the increased risk test, the court concluded that the icy sidewalk increased the employee’s risk of injury. Id. In doing so, the court rejected the argument that the icy sidewalk could not constitute an increased risk because all Minnesotans face the same risk. Id.

When someone falls on a flight of stairs, certainly the occurrence of an injury is more likely, as is an increase in severity of the injury suffered. For these reasons, a flight of stairs cannot be considered a neutral condition. The flight of stairs alone increases the risk of injury, as did the icy sidewalk in Hohlt, and it is not necessary to require a showing of ‘something about’ the staircase that further increased the risk.

We find the facts here to be virtually indistinguishable from those in Kirchner v. Cnty. of Anoka, 339 N.W.2d 908, 36 W.C.D. 335 (Minn. 1983). The Kirchner court determined that the required causal connection was met where the employee suffered an injury while descending a flight of stairs when the “staircase was located at Kirchner’s place of employment, and the injury occurred when the public use of the only handrail required Kirchner to negotiate the steps without the benefit of that protection.” Kirchner, 339 N.W.2d at 911. Although there were handrails here, Ms. Roller-Dick was unable to use them because she was using both hands to carry a plant to her car. While it may be argued that the employee should have taken the elevator or should have taken some other action to minimize her risk, it may also be argued that Mr. Kirchner could have waited to descend the stairs until a handrail became available. These arguments, however, amount to contributory negligence and are prohibited by statute.

In Kirchner, the causal connection was found without evidence of a condition, defect, or wrongdoing on the part of the employer. Ms. Roller-Dick suffered an injury while descending a flight of stairs on her employer’s premises, she was not obligated under the law to show that there was something about the flight of stairs that increased her risk of injury because the stairs alone increased her risk, and therefore, that injury arose out of her employment.

We reverse the compensation judge’s decision and remand for determination of benefits to which the employee may be entitled as a result of this work injury.

[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1041 (3rd ed. 2002) (emphasis added).