The Appellate Division of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board, en banc, issued a decision in Rena Daigle v. High View Manor. This decision addressed the issue of whether the use of stairs in a workplace, without more, is sufficient to establish that employment contributed a substantial risk of injury that was not otherwise present in the average employee’s ordinary life. In this case, the employee, a nurse with osteoarthritic knees, was descending a staircase at work at the end of a long shift, when, according to the Board’s fact findings, her left leg “gave way,” and she fell, suffering an injury to her right knee.
Hearing Officer Collier, writing for a unanimous panel, stated that the findings in the underlying decree that (1) the elevator was not available to the employee, (2) the lock-out of the elevator was beyond the employee’s control, (3) the building was three stories high, (4) the stairs were different from residential stairs, (5) the employee had worked a late shift, and (6) the length of the shift made the employee tired and sore, were sufficient to support the hearing officer’s conclusion that the employment objectively presented a risk of injury greater than in the average person’s everyday life.
Hearing Officer Greene wrote a concurrence addressing the correct standard of review applicable to issues of legal causation on appeal to the Appellate Division. Citing the Law Court’s decisions in Bryant v. Masters Machine, 444 A.2d 329 (Me. 1982) and Celentano v. Department of Corrections, 887 A.2d 512 (Me. 2005), Hearing Officer Greene emphasized that the standard of review with regard to mixed questions of fact and law, such as legal causation, is that the decision may not be disturbed if it “neither arbitrary nor without rational foundation.”
Employers and insurers should not take this decision to mean that the Hearing Officers, as a body, consider all workplace staircases to present an inherent risk greater than that presented in a person’s everyday life. All cases are fact specific, and factors such as the length of the staircase, the nature of the tread, and other means of moving between floors available to the employee, may certainly play a role in future staircase cases. However, this decision does demonstrate that appellants have a very high bar to clear in when they seek to overturn a hearing officer’s finding on an issue of legal causation.