Case Law Update: Barnette v. Lowes
Barnette v. Lowes (4/19/16)
The North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned a Deputy Commissioner and the Full Commission Opinion and Award denying the plaintiff’s claim. The Court found that an “accident” occurred where plaintiff was “engaged in his normal work duty…” at the time of alleged injury, but there was an interruption in the normal work routine with the introduction of unusual circumstances.
Facts and Procedural History:
The plaintiff in this case worked as a delivery driver for Defendant-Employer for 8 years. Eighty to eighty five percent of plaintiff’s job involved the delivery of appliances, oftentimes refrigerators. Plaintiff often performed his job with the same co-worker. Plaintiff’s job required him and his co-worker to deliver large appliances to homes on Bald Head Island (BHI). These homes often featured “reverse” floor plans with a kitchen on the second or third level. It was typical for the homes on BHI to be “tight” with narrow staircases. It was not uncommon for plaintiff and his co-worker to have to deliver large appliances to the upstairs levels of homes on BHI. Plaintiff’s co-worker testified that 75% of the time, an old refrigerator would have to be removed before a new one could be installed.
On August 8, 2012, plaintiff and co-worker delivered a side-by-side refrigerator to a home on BHI. Co-worker testified that the staircase of this home was narrow. Co-worker testified that most staircases at homes on BHI were “32-36” inches wide but that this staircase was “29-30” inches wide. Plaintiff claimed that “the staircase was not a standard staircase and was unusually tight.”
Plaintiff and co-worker first removed the doors of the refrigerator and then lifted the appliance and carried it up the winding staircase to the second floor kitchen. Plaintiff and co-worker were unable to make the final turn into the kitchen and only made it two-thirds of the way up the staircase. Plaintiff and co-worker then decided the refrigerator was not going to fit and decided to head back downstairs with the appliance. Plaintiff claimed that roughly three-fourths of the way down the stairs, his right hand and forearm “went completely numb.”
On January 15, 2013, plaintiff filed a Form 18 asserting that he had injured his “right arm/elbow/hand when performing an unusually difficult delivery of a refrigerator up and down a narrow set of stairs on August 8, 2012.” Defendants denied plaintiff claim. A hearing was held and the Deputy Commissioner found that plaintiff had failed to show that he sustained the requisite “injury by accident.” Plaintiff appealed and the Full Commission affirmed the Deputy Commissioner’s Opinion and Award denying plaintiff’s claim. Plaintiff appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Applicable Statute and/or Law:
The Court found that North Carolina courts have defined the term “accident” as an unlooked for and untoward event which is not expected or designed by the person who suffers the injury; the elements of an accident are the interruption of the routine of work and the introduction thereby of unusual conditions likely to result in unexpected consequences. The Court found that “if an employee is injured while carrying on his usual tasks in the usual way the injury does not arise by accident. An accidental cause WILL BE INFERRED, however, when an interruption of the work routine and the introduction thereby of unusual conditions likely to result in unexpected consequences occurs” (emphasis added).
The Court made a point of saying that this rule applies even when the usual tasks of an employee’s work are physically awkward, strenuous, or demanding.
In support of this point, the Court gave special attention to the Renfro v. Richardson Sports, Ltd. Partners, case found at 172 N.C. App. 176, 616 S.E. 2d 317 (2005), disc. rev. denied 360 N.C. 535, 633 S.E. 2d 821 (2006). In that case, the Court found that a professional football player, engaged in his normal work duty of blocking an offensive lineman was injured by accident because circumstances forced the player into utilizing an unusual and awkward work technique that was not normally used in the player’s normal work routine.
Analysis of Evidence:
The Court found the evidence established that; the staircase that plaintiff was working on was not a standard staircase and was unusually tight and that instead of carrying the new refrigerator up the stairs, setting it down and then carrying the old refrigerator down the stairs, plaintiff and co-worker only made it two-thirds of the way up the staircase with the new refrigerator when they decided to return down the stairs, depriving plaintiff with a break or opportunity to reposition his hold on the appliance to better accommodate the descent. In summary, the Court found that the evidence showed that plaintiff was required to carry a new refrigerator back down an unusually narrow staircase without a break or pause.
As a result of these findings and in light of the previously detailed definition of “accident” and the Renfro case referenced above, the Court found that plaintiff “while engaging in his normal work duty” was injured because he was forced by circumstances into utilizing an unusual or awkward work technique that was not normally used in his normal work routine.
The Court concluded that plaintiff sustained an injury as a result of an interruption of the work routine and the introduction thereby of unusual conditions and that, therefore, an accidental cause must be inferred. The Court reversed the Commission’s Opinion and Award and remanded to the Commission for further proceedings to determine the benefits to which plaintiff is entitled.
- The traditional definition of “accident” applies even when the usual tasks for an employee’s work are physically awkward, strenuous, or demanding.
- Even if an employee is injured while performing his normal work duties, be on the lookout for circumstances which force an employee into utilization of unusual and awkward work techniques not normally used in the employee’s normal work routine.