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Legal Causation

The Maine Workers’ Compensation Board Appellate Division has recently issued an opinion affirming the denial of an employee’s petition on grounds of “legal causation.”

In Norma Fuller v. Hannaford Bros., Fuller was a long-time cashier at a Hannaford grocery store, and she aggravated her pre-existing low back condition putting a customer’s receipt in the trashcan. To do so, she had reached and twisted to her right, and she felt a pop and pain in her low back, which turned out to be a herniated disc at L5-S1 requiring surgery. After hearing, Judge Stovall denied Fuller’s petition, finding that she had not sustained her burden of proof, as the motion involved in discarding the receipt was not awkward, hurried or strenuous, and it was “nothing out of the ordinary” from movements she performed repeatedly in her daily living. Applying the Maine Supreme Court’s 1982 Bryant decision, Judge Stovall found that Fuller’s action did not increase her risk of injury and disability above the risks involved in her normal daily activities.

Fuller appealed, but the Appellate Division panel affirmed Judge Stovall’s decision. The panel pointed out that Fuller had a pre-existing low back condition, and that was a personal element of risk she brought with her to the workplace, and to establish a work injury under Bryant, she must show that her work activity contributed “some substantial element to increase the risk, thus offsetting the personal risk which the employee brings to the employment environment.” Citing the Maine Supreme Court’s 2005 Celentano decision, the panel said this objective standard was intended to distinguish true work injuries from “situations in which the employee just happened to be at work when the disability arose.”

The panel distinguished this case from its 2016 Bowker decision, in which a worker with a prior bad back sustained a work injury from “lifting and twisting with an 8 to 10 pound box.” In that case, the Appellate Division panel vacated Judge Greene’s decision finding no legal causation, because the panel felt the work activity was strenuous enough to increase Bowker’s risk of disability. By contrast, Fuller’s act of putting a small piece of paper in the trash was “less demanding,” similar to the Maine Supreme Court’s 1997 Barrett decision, in which Barrett developed back pain “while walking across a level surface” at work.

If you have any questions about this or any other decision, please let us know.

Thomas Getchell
Daniel Gilligan
Michael Richards
Attorneys at Law