Examining An Injury Resulting from an Eclipse Under North Carolina Law

On August 21, 2017, many of us in North Carolina looked up at the sun to view the rare phenomenon of a total or near total eclipse. In most instances, the viewing was done with safety measures in place. As the eclipse occurred during the early afternoon hours, employers were keen to ensure that if their employees were to look at the eclipse they would do so without harming themselves. The eclipse prompted different responses from employers and state agencies over concerns of safety and productivity.  But, hypothetically, assume an employee looked up at the sun while at work in an unsafe manner. What if that employee injured his/her eyes? Are there measures to protect an employer in the North Carolina workers’ compensation system from such claims?

As might be expected, there is no case law on injuries related to viewing an eclipse. However, injuries resulting from natural phenomenon have been litigated and are the most likely comparable cases to one related to an eclipse.

North Carolina is not a “positional risk” state in which an injury arises out of employment if the employee’s employment merely placed him or her in a circumstance or location where injury could occur.  In North Carolina, an accident “arises out of employment” only when it is the result of a risk involved in the employment; there must be some causal connection between the employment and the injury.  Bolling v Belkwhite Co., 228 N.C. 749 (1948).

The North Carolina Supreme Court has adopted the “increased risk analysis” holding that the risk must be one “which might have been contemplated by a reasonable person… as incidental to the service when [she] entered the employment.  Dodson v DuBose Steel, Inc., 159 N.C.App. 1, (2003), rev’d on reasons in dissent, 359 N.C. 129 (2004).  Thus, even when the employment provides “a convenient opportunity” for injury, it is not necessarily the contributing proximate cause.  Dodson, 159 N.C.App. at 14. In other words, where a risk is faced equally by all causes an injury, while not specific to employment, the Courts have generally held the resulting accident and injury as not compensable.

In the case of another natural event, lightning strikes, the Court of Appeals has recently addressed the analysis of compensability in Heatherly v. The Hollingsworth Co., 189 NC App 398 (April 19, 2011). The Court allowed, in the case of a natural phenomenon such as a lightning strike, that where an employee can show an “increased risk” through work-related factors then the lightning strike claim will be compensable.  The Court affirmed the standard in Pope v. Goodson, 249 N.C. 690 (1959), that where an injured employee is, by reason of his or her employment, peculiarly or specially exposed to risk of injury from lightning, that is, greater than other persons in community, death or injury resulting from this source usually is compensable as an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment.

As there is no direct case law to address injuries related to a viewing of an eclipse there is no clear indication that the Courts would follow the same analysis taken with natural phenomenon such as lightening discussed above. However, as an eclipse is a similar phenomenon it is reasonable expectation. Moreover, Heatherly’s analysis demonstrates that specific facts related to work related-factors in each position may result in different determinations on compensability. Therefore, a case by case analysis of each of these possible injuries should be taken. Carefully consider the facts, the type of employment, and the risks of employment apparent in the employee’s position. When legal questions arise contact Cranfill Sumner and Hartzog to discuss the analysis and defenses of the claim.