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Hohlt v. University of Minnesota

Supreme Court of Minnesota

June 28, 2017

Josephine M. Hohlt, Respondent,
v.
University of Minnesota, Self-Insured, administered by Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Relator, and Fairview Health Services, University of Minnesota Physicians, Department of Labor and Industry/Vocational Restoration Unit, Painters & Allied Trades, and Clear Lake Physical Therapy & Rehab, Intervenors.

         Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Richard C. Lund, Menk & Menk, for respondent.

          Roderick C. Cosgriff, Heacox, Hartman, Koshmrl, Cosgriff & Johnson, P.A., for relator.

          Mark A. Kleinschmidt, Cousineau McGuire Chartered, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Defense Lawyers Association.

          Lillehaug, J. Dissenting, Anderson, J., and Halbrooks, Jill, Acting Justice[*] Took no part, Gildea, C.J., Stras and Chutich, JJ.

         SYLLABUS

         1. An employee who slipped and fell on ice met the "arising out of" employment requirement of Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1 (2016), because there was a causal connection between her injury and her employment in that her employment exposed her to a hazard which originated on the employer's premises as a part of the working environment.

         2. An employee who slipped and fell on ice while walking from her workplace to the employer's parking ramp on a sidewalk maintained by her employer met the "in the course of" employment requirement of Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          LILLEHAUG, Justice.

         Respondent Josephine Hohlt slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk when walking from her workplace to a parking ramp owned and operated by her employer, the University of Minnesota. Hohlt filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits. The compensation judge denied Hohlt's claim on the ground that her injury did not arise out of her employment. Hohlt appealed to the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA), which reversed the compensation judge on the "arising out of" issue and further held that the injury was "in the course of" employment. Because the WCCA was correct in concluding that Hohlt's injury was compensable, we affirm its decision.

         FACTS

         On December 30, 2013, Josephine Hohlt drove to her job as a painter at the University, where she was scheduled to work from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Hohlt parked in the Oak Street ramp, a public parking ramp owned and operated by the University. She usually parked in the Oak Street ramp because it charged $6 per day for cars arriving after 2 p.m., rather than the usual $12 per day.[1]

         Hohlt painted many buildings on the University's Twin Cities campus, but she most often worked in the Mayo building and the dormitories. That day, she painted in the Mayo building. Hohlt finished her work early, so she and two coworkers "punched out" at 10:30 p.m. It was sleeting and snowing that night, so Hohlt walked carefully on the sidewalk that stretched the four blocks between the Mayo building and the Oak Street ramp. Although the City of Minneapolis owns the sidewalk, the University as an adjacent property owner has the responsibility to maintain it, including keeping it clear of snow and ice. See Minneapolis, Minn., Code of Ordinances § 445.20 (2016).

         When Hohlt and her coworkers reached the intersection of Oak Street and Delaware Street, they waited for the traffic light to indicate that they could cross the street. When the light changed, Hohlt walked forward onto the sidewalk's curb ramp. There, she slipped on ice and fell. Unable to get up, Hohlt was helped into a coworker's car and taken to a nearby emergency room.

         Hohlt had broken her hip. It failed to heal properly, so she underwent hip replacement surgery about a year later. Two months later, Hohlt returned to her job as a painter without restrictions.

         Hohlt filed a claim petition for workers' compensation benefits, and a compensation judge held a hearing on the claim.[2] The issues contested at the hearing were whether Hohlt's injury arose out of her employment and was in the course of her employment. See Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1 (2016).

         In its findings and order following the hearing, the compensation judge noted that "the parking lot exception may apply to the course and scope requirement, " but did not decide the issue. The compensation judge concluded that Hohlt's injury did not "arise out of" her employment because "the hazard faced by the employee of falling on winter ice or snow was not unlike the hazard faced by the general public." Hohlt appealed the compensation judge's decision that her injury did not arise out of her employment. The University cross-appealed on the issue of the "in the course of" requirement.

         The Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, unanimously reversed the compensation judge's "arising out of" conclusion. Hohlt v. Univ. of Minn., No. WC15-5821, 2016 WL 698266, at *1 (Minn. WCCA Feb. 3, 2016). The WCCA determined that "Hohlt was on the premises of the employer when she was injured" because she had recently punched out and "was walking a short distance on the most direct route to a parking ramp owned and operated by her employer." Id. at *6. Thus, the WCCA concluded that "Hohlt was in the course of her employment when [she was] injured." Id. The WCCA also concluded that the injury arose out of Hohlt's employment because her "presence on the employer's premises . . . was not due to her membership in the general public but was because of her employment by the university." Id. at *5.

         On appeal, the University argues that the WCCA erred as a matter of law by failing to adhere to Dykhoff's rule that the "arising out of" and "in the course of" tests in the statute must be applied independently. See Dykhoff v. Xcel Energy, 840 N.W.2d 821, 830 (Minn. 2013). The University also contends that the WCCA erred in substituting its findings of fact for those of the compensation judge.

         ANALYSIS

         The WCCA is a "specialized agency of the executive branch, its members selected for their experience and expertise." Hengemuhle v. Long Prairie Jaycees, 358 N.W.2d 54, 61 (Minn. 1984). It is entrusted with deciding "all questions of law and fact arising under the workers' compensation laws of the state in those cases that have been appealed to the [WCCA]." Minn. Stat. § 175A.01, subd. 5 (2016). We will reverse the WCCA on review if we determine that it clearly and manifestly erred by rejecting findings supported by substantial evidence and substituting its own findings. Hengemuhle, 358 N.W.2d at 59, 61; Gibberd v. Control Data Corp., 424 N.W.2d 776, 779-80 (Minn. 1988). In this case, the relevant facts are undisputed, so we are left with a question of law, which we consider de novo. Reider v. Anoka-Hennepin Sch. Dist. No. 11, 728 N.W.2d 246, 249 (Minn. 2007) (interpreting provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act is a statutory question that we review de novo).

         The question of law presented is whether, applying undisputed facts, Hohlt's injury is compensable under Minn. Stat. § 176.021. Section 176.021, subdivision 1, provides that "[e]very employer is liable for compensation according to the provisions of this chapter and is liable to pay compensation in every case of personal injury or death of an employee arising out of and in the course of employment without regard to the question of negligence." The "arising out of" and the "in the course of" requirements in the statute are distinct and each must be met for an injury to be compensable. Dykhoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826. The University argues that Hohlt satisfied neither the "arising out of" requirement nor the "in the course of" requirement.

         I.

         For an injury to arise out of employment, "a causal connection-not necessarily in the proximate cause sense-must exist between the injury and the employment." Gibberd, 424 N.W.2d at 780. A causal connection "is supplied if the employment exposes the employee to a hazard which originates on the premises as a part of the working environment, or . . . peculiarly exposes the employee to an external hazard whereby he is subjected to a different and a greater risk than if he had been pursuing his ordinary personal affairs." Dykhoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826 (quoting Nelson v. City of St. Paul, 81 N.W.2d 272, 275 (Minn. 1957)) (internal quotation marks omitted). When "the employment creates a special hazard from which injury comes, then, within the meaning of the statute, there is that causal relation between employment" and the injury. Id. (quoting Hanson v. Robitshek-Schneider Co., 297 N.W. 19, 21 (Minn. 1941)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The compensation judge determined that Hohlt's injury did not result from a special hazard. The University contends that this was a factual finding. It was not; rather, the compensation judge applied the law-the "increased-risk" test-to the undisputed facts. "Increased risk" is a legal test based on the workers' compensation statute's "arising out of" language. See Dykhoff, 840 N.W.2d at 826.

         The WCCA applied the increased-risk test to the undisputed facts, and correctly concluded that there was a causal connection between the injury and the employment. Specifically, the causal connection exists because Hohlt's employment exposed her to a hazard that originated on the premises as part of the working environment.

         In this case, that hazard was the University-maintained sidewalk. Hohlt was moving from one part of her employer's premises to another.[3] As she walked from the Mayo building to the Oak Street ramp, she fell on an icy patch. She was exposed to the icy sidewalk on her employer's premises because she was there, not as a member of the general public, but because of her employment as a painter. There was a ...


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