Judges Differ, Cases Won or Lost – In Some Cases, the Cause is Simply Frost


| Caroleann Gallagher

 

During the winter Chicago weather, I get an increasing number of calls from people who have slipped or fallen on ice, snow, or a wet surface and have hurt themselves. Often times this happens in the context of a person going to or from work and I often get asked if this is a situation that will be covered by workers’ compensation.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not straightforward and can only be answered with a detailed and thorough examination of the actual facts surrounding the accident. Some of the important considerations include:- what condition caused you to fall; what were you actually doing at the time of the fall; who owns the area where you fell and were you permitted and/or required to be in the area of your fall as part of your day-to-day work responsibilities.

In Illinois in order to have a compensable work injury case, you need to be able to show that when you got hurt, not only were you working but that your injury also arose out of your employment. This is a very detailed and complex area of the law and filed with a lot of nuances and should not be navigated without the benefit of an attorney who is familiar with all areas of workers compensation law.

Parking lot” cases, pose a very difficult challenge in answering the question as to whether or not an accident on the way into or out of work will be compensable as a work injury or not. The nuances involved are very clear when you analyze a recent case which went all the way to the Illinois Appellate Court for determination if the injured worker’s fall was an accident that “arose out” of her employment. Courts can differ greatly in their reasoning as is evident from this case and it takes a very experienced attorney to be able to navigate this area of the law.

The case is Western Springs Police Department v The Illinois Workers Compensation Commission and Jacqueline MacDonnell. The claimant, Jacqueline MacDonnell, was employed as a crossing guard by the Village of Western Springs Police Department. Her crossing guard duties required her to be at the corner of Wolf Road and Hillgrove Avenue in Western Springs between the hours of 7.40 am until 8.10 am. On the day of her accident Jacqueline parked her car in an angled parking space that was along the train tracks and directly across from the corner at which she manned her post. As she got out of her car she slipped on ice, lost her balance, and fell sustaining injuries to her hand and wrist.

During the course of the evidence at the Arbitration of the case, the claimant testified that there were two employee designated parking lots at the rear of the village hall where employees of the village parked and where members of the public were not allowed to park. Jacqueline did not park in those lots but rather chose a public parking lot closer to her crossing guard post.

She testified that she was permitted to do this by her employer and that her employer waived the four-hour minimum parking for its employees , that members of the general public were subject to. It was undisputed that the parking lot where the claimant parked was also Village owned property.

At the first level of hearing of the case, before the Illinois Workers Compensation Commission, the Arbitrator denied the claimant’s case – stating that she did not sustain an accident that arose out of and in the course of her job. The Arbitrator’s decision was based on the fact that the claimant parked in an area that was not designated as a village employee only lot and therefore Jacqueline was like any other member of the public who parked there. The Arbitrator held that encountering the ice in the lot as she did was something that any member of the public could encounter and thus did not arise out of her specific job as a crossing guard for the Village.

Jacqueline appealed her case to the next level where it was heard by a panel of three Commissioners. The Commissioners reversed the Arbitrator’s finding and stated that she did sustain a compensable work accident because the area where she fell was in fact owned by the Village and the Village exercised control over the area and it conferred different parking rules so that Village employees could use that parking space. According to the Commissioners because Jacqueline encountered a hazardous condition (i.e. ice) on the Village’s premises her accident was compensable under The Workers Compensation Act.

The Village, dissatisfied with this decision against them, sought a judicial review of the case in the Circuit Court of Cook County. The Circuit Court reversed the three Commissioners and agreed with the initial Arbitrator and stated that the claimant’s accident did not involve a fall in a parking lot ‘provided’ to Jacqueline by her employer and thus her accident was not one that arose out of and in the course of her job.

Jacqueline was obviously unhappy with the Circuit Court’s finding and appealed the matter to the Illinois Appellate Court who sided with the three Commissioners and found that Jacqueline’s case was compensable. Their reasoning rested on the fact that although the parking lot that Jacqueline used was not one designated to her by her employer – it was a parking lot wherein the Village granted her and other employee’s certain rights and privileges which were not available to the general public, because they allowed her to park there for longer than four hours. Because they carved out this exception specifically for their employees, the Appellate court decided that Jacqueline’s fall was a fall that arose out of her job and thus her injuries were compensable.

All of the conflicting decisions in this case between four courts illustrate clearly how nuanced and tricky parking lot cases are and why it is not an area of the law you should navigate alone.

If a fall in a parking lot is deemed not to be a compensable workers compensation accident, then you may have other avenues of relief to compensate you for any injury. However, whether that that avenue is open to you or not will require a very thorough look into the circumstances of the fall, the conditions which caused you to fall and the owners of the area wherein you fell. The scope of that discussion is beyond the time I have here.

As the Chicago Winter sets in, be careful out there and if you or your loved ones are involved in a fall in a parking lot either during, before or after work, or on any other occasion, please give us a call so we can go through all the aspects of the case and determine what avenue is the best one for you to proceed and to ensure your rights are protected.

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