By: Matthew Hard
Holding: The Appellate Court affirmed the Commission’s decision and claimant was awarded 100 weeks of PPD benefits (20% Man as a Whole), 5 and 2/7 weeks of TTD benefits, and all reasonable and necessary medical expenses under the Workers’ Compensation Act for his injuries.
Facts: On February 17, 2009, Claimant, Michael Toles, a police officer for the Bolingbrook Police Department, severely injured his back at his home as he loaded his duty bag into his personal vehicle while preparing to leave for work. The duty bag contained his vest, helmet, firearm, ammunition, etc. that he needed to perform his duties as an officer and weighed approximately 40 lbs. Officers were required to keep their duty bags safe at all times, and many took their duty bags home with them at the end of their shift.
With regard to this injury, although the duty bag was fairly heavy, Mr. Toles had a medical history of diagnosed back problems since 2002 that included degenerative disease and a bulging disc. He had been treating those problems conservatively with chiropractic care, physical therapy, and steroid injections for several years and had shown some improvement. However, the act of lifting his duty bag into his vehicle that morning caused his previously manageable back problems to become incapacitating and require surgery.
The Arbitrator that heard the case awarded benefits and that ruling was upheld by the Commission. The employer appealed. The employer’s challenge of that ruling was two-fold. First, the employer argued that the employee did not sustain an accident that arose out of and in the course of his employment. Second, the employer disputed that the employee’s condition of ill-being was not causally related to the alleged accident on February 17, 2009.
Reasoning: As it relates to the employer’s first argument, the Court stated that claimant’s duties relating to the safe-keeping of his duty bag directly furthered the employer’s interests. They further stated that the direct benefit to the employer when an officer performs tasks to keep these bags, containing his firearm, live ammunition, and other things, is substantial and self-evident. As such, the employer has a direct interest in seeing that its officers protect that equipment. Here, the claimant was injured while performing actions that were directly related to this job-related task.
With regard to the second challenge, the Court stated that the employee had been receiving conservative treatment and that his records indicate he had shown some improvement. They further noted that his doctor stated that Mr. Toles “was functionally quite well” prior to the accident. The Court also discussed the fact that surgery had not been prescribed by his doctor nor did his doctor feel that the patient was symptomatic enough to require surgery prior to the accident. As such, they stated that the Commission was well within its prerogative to find that the claimant’s work-related accident aggravated or accelerated his pre-existing back condition and was a causative factor resulting in his back surgery.
Conclusion: In sum, there are two points of emphasis that can be taken from this case, both of which are positive for employees. First, a work-related injury may be sustained while performing an activity that would normally be considered outside of a claimant’s job duties and at a place normally outside of the scope of the employment if the activity being performed was for the benefit of the employer and was an activity that the employer could reasonably expect the claimant to perform. Second, a claimant may receive benefits for a work-related injury, despite being diagnosed and receiving extensive treatment for a pre-existing condition, if the accident that caused the injury is an aggravation or acceleration of that pre-existing condition.