In 2005, Missouri’s workers’ compensation law was significantly changed and, in most instances, became more favorable to employers and their workers’ compensation insurance companies. One of those changes was the addition of the “equal exposure” language to the statute’s definition of an “injury” that is covered by the workers’ compensation law. As a result, many employers and their insurers started denying claims that were once compensable by asserting the “equal exposure” defense. But a Missouri court recently refused to interpret the rule in a manner hoped for by the employer.
In Dorris v. Stoddard County, Linda Dorris was an employee of the Stoddard County Collector’s Office. While she was working, her supervisor asked her to go over to the new building in which they would be moving to approve some countertops that were being installed. On the way to the new building, she tripped over some cracks in the street, causing an injury to her shoulder. The employer denied her workers’ compensation claim and argued that benefits should not have been awarded to Dorris, because she fell walking in a public street, which is a hazard she is equally exposed to in her nonemployment life. Employer cited the language of Section 287.020.3 RSMo., which states:
"(1) In this chapter the term "injury" is hereby defined to be an injury which has arisen out of and in the course of employment……
(2) An injury shall be deemed to arise out of and in the course of the employment only if:
(a) It is reasonably apparent, upon consideration of all the circumstances, that the accident is the prevailing factor in causing the injury; and
(b) It does not come from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of and unrelated to the employment in normal nonemployment life. "
The employer denied Dorris' claim because, they argued, Dorris was equally exposed to walking on a public street in her nonemployment life. The court disagreed, stating that Ms. Dorris was caused to walk on a dangerous road because of her employment duties. The court went on to distinguish Dorris’ case from cases where the courts previously denied benefits under this equal exposure argument. In Ms. Dorris’ case, she fell on a dangerous condition—a crack in the street. The cases cited by the employer where compensation was denied due to the fact that the employee was equally exposed to the hazard outside of employment are cases where there was no condition of employment that was involved in the fall. In those cases where benefits were denied, the person merely fell at work for no reason related to work (for instance, where an employee’s knee popped simply because he was walking too fast—Miller v. Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission, 287 SW.3d 671 (Mo. Banc 2009) . In the Dorris case, the court awarded compensation because her fall occurred on a defective condition, while she was performing a work duty, and while she was on the clock.
Insurance companies and their attorneys often try to deny cases based on the argument that the employee was injured due to a hazard to which the person was equally exposed outside of their employment life. In order to defeat that argument, it is essential that the employee show that some condition of employment caused his or her injury. This can be a very fine distinction, and if your claim is being denied because of an equal exposure defense, you should immediately contact an experienced Missouri workers' compensation attorney to help you.