FEBRUARY 4, 2020
No. WC19-6321


ARISING OUT OF & IN THE COURSE OF.  The employee’s burden of proof to establish that his injury arose out of his employment was met upon showing that he fell and was injured while using a stairway located on the employer’s premises for purposes related to the employment.

    Determined by:
  1. Sean M. Quinn, Judge
  2. Patricia J. Milun, Chief Judge
  3. David A. Stofferahn, Judge
  4. Gary M. Hall, Judge
  5. Deborah K. Sundquist, Judge

Compensation Judge: John R. Baumgarth

Attorneys: Blake Bauer, Fields Law Firm, Wayzata, Minnesota, for the Respondent.  Luke Seifert, State of Minn./Dep’t of Admin., St. Paul, Minnesota, for the Appellants.




The self-insured employer appeals the compensation judge’s decision that the employee’s injury arose out of his employment.  We affirm.


On May 10, 2018, the employee, Gregory Gritz, was working as a human services technician at his employer, the Minnesota of Department of Human Services (the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center).  On that date, he attended a mandatory training session, which lasted approximately 40 minutes.  After the training session ended, the employee was walking back to his desk with a fellow employee, Jon Diedrich.  They began descending a flight of stairs consisting of ten steps, a landing, and ten more steps.  The stairwell was approximately five feet wide.  It had brass handrails.  The employee was walking down the right side of the stairwell while Mr. Diedrich was walking down the left side of the stairwell.  The employee testified that Mr. Diedrich was to his immediate left, although Mr. Diedrich testified the employee was one or two steps ahead of him.

The employee testified to holding some paperwork in his right hand as he walked down the stairs, while Mr. Diedrich could not recall the employee having anything in his hands.  The two men reached the landing, and upon taking his first step down the second half of the staircase, the employee stepped too far.  His heel hit the edge of the step, and he lost his balance.  He reached for, but was unable to hold, the handrail and tumbled down ten steps.

Mr. Diedrich ran to the employee’s aid.  He left for less than 30 seconds to call for assistance.  When Mr. Diedrich returned, but before any other personnel could arrive, the employee told Mr. Diedrich that his right shoulder had popped out of place.  At the employee’s request, Mr. Diedrich yanked on the employee’s right arm, popping the shoulder back into place.  The employee was taken to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with injuries to his right shoulder and neck.  He subsequently underwent fusion surgery of the neck.

The parties stipulated that the employee was in the course and scope of his employment, that he underwent reasonable and necessary medical care, and was off work because of the injury.  They also stipulated to an average weekly wage and that should his claim be compensable, he should receive temporary total disability benefits during the time frame he was off work.

Because the stairs were not defective and had no other obvious hazards, the self-insured employer denied the employee’s workers’ compensation claim on the basis that his injury did not arise out of his employment.

Following a hearing, the compensation judge issued his Findings and Order and determined that the injury arose out of employment.  The compensation judge relied upon this court’s decision in Forrest v. Children’s Health Care, 79 W.C.D. 31 (W.C.C.A. 2018), summarily aff’d (Minn. Jan. 8, 2019), where we held that using stairs at work constituted an increased risk in and of itself such that an injury caused by the use of stairs is compensable.  The compensation judge wrote:

Given this legal standard, it is irrelevant whether the employee in the present case was carrying objects in his hand, whether carrying those objects impaired his ability to utilize the available handrail or whether the objects were for work or personal purposes.  It is also irrelevant which step the employee missed as he attempted to descend the stairs.  The preponderance of the evidence establishes that no defect or problem existed with the stairwell on the date of the employee’s fall.  The [use of the] stairwell itself constitutes the increased risk.


The self-insured employer 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).


On appeal, the self-insured employer argues that this court’s decision in Forrest was wrongly decided and that we should overrule our precedent.  The self-insured employer contends the employee failed to show an increased risk of injury from descending the staircase and therefore the injury did not arise out of employment.  In doing so, it relies upon the fact that the staircase was for public use, had available handrails, and was clean, dry, and free of debris.  It also points to the fact that the employee was not hurrying and did not pivot as he traversed the stairs.  The self-insured employer also asserts public policy arguments arguing that if the employee’s injury is compensable under these facts, employers will become liable for workers’ compensation benefits for every injury event that occurs on a flight of stairs, stating, “would then, all employers be required to remove stairs from its premises, factories, or farms, to protect their employees from harm?”

We are not persuaded.

The self-insured employer is correct in its assertion that the use of stairs is no more dangerous at work than anywhere else.  The same could be said of the use of ladders, sawblades, keyboards, icy sidewalks, and cars, among many other things.  The use of these tools are common everyday activities that people engage in at home, at work, and otherwise.  For purposes of liability for a work injury, it does not matter that the employee’s injury was sustained while engaging in a common everyday activity.  It also does not matter that the employee could have taken an elevator.  His choice of the stairs does not defeat the self-insured employer’s liability as “[e]very employer is liable for compensation … in every case of personal injury or death of an employee arising out of and in the course of employment without regard to the question of negligence.”  Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1.  The issue is not whether a similar injury could have happened in a similar manner away from work.  Rather, the issue is whether the work activity brought the employee to the risk which resulted in injury.  Liability arises under the Workers’ Compensation Act as long as the injury-producing risk has its origin in the employment.  Noggle v. Lazar Commc’ns, Inc., No. WC04-216 (W.C.C.A. Nov. 10, 2004).

This case is similar to Hohlt v. Univ. of Minn., 897 N.W.2d 777, 77 W.C.D. 509 (Minn. 2017).  In Hohlt, the employee suffered injury while walking from her building on campus to the parking ramp on campus, slipping on an icy sidewalk.  In holding the injury arose out of employment, the supreme court explained, “[s]he was exposed to the icy sidewalk on her employer’s premises because she was there, not as a member of the general public, but because of her employment …”  Id. 897 N.W.2d at 781, 77 W.C.D. at 514.  Citing Foley v. Honeywell, 488 N.W.2d 268 (Minn. 1992), the court reiterated that “the test is not whether the general public was also exposed to the risk, but whether the employee was exposed to the risk because of employment.”  Hohlt, 897 N.W.2d at 782, 77 W.C.D. at 515.   Whether the employee here was using a staircase that also happened to be available for use by the public is irrelevant.

The employee fell down ten stairs.  In rolling down the stairs, he suffered injuries to his shoulder and his neck, resulting in a dislocated shoulder and requiring neck fusion surgery.  The parties stipulated that the employee “fell down a flight of stairs and sustained physical injuries to his cervical spine and right shoulder.”  The fall down the stairs caused the injury.  Compare Jaafaru v. Cerenity Senior Care, No. WC19-6293 (W.C.C.A. Nov. 1, 2019) (holding the employee’s injury while traversing stairs arose out of employment but remanding for findings to resolve conflicting medical opinions over whether the use of the stairs was a medical cause of the injury).

This court has said on numerous occasions that the use of stairs, in and of itself, creates an increased risk of injury regardless of the condition of the stairs.  See, e.g. Forrest, 79 W.C.D. at 37; Lein v. Eventide, 78 W.C.D. 587, 590-91 (W.C.C.A. 2017), summarily aff’d (Minn. Oct. 2, 2018).  In this case, because of the increased risk created by the employee’s use of the staircase, he suffered an injury.

In its brief, the self-insured employer posed the rhetorical question of whether employers would be required to remove all stairs from workplaces in order to create a safe work environment.  It argues that because this would be an absurd result, common staircase injuries should not be compensable absent some additional hazard.  We agree that employers cannot eliminate every possible risk of injury.  Yet, an injury does not need to be preventable to be compensable.[1]

The use of stairs creates an increased risk of injury.  Because the employee’s injury was caused by the use of stairs while he was working, the compensation judge was correct in finding the injury compensable as a matter of law.  We affirm.

[1] For example, if a sawblade on a power tool has a guard, the chance of an employee suffering a severe cut is decreased, but not eliminated.  Likewise, if an employee using a keyboard uses proper ergonomics and takes regular rests between typing, the chances of developing a repetitive strain injury to the wrist or hands is decreased, but not eliminated.  Certainly, employers are encouraged to strive towards safe and healthy workplaces, but doing so only reduces, but never eliminates, the risk or occurrence of injury.