In Illinois workers’ compensation, no two cases are exactly the same. However, when two cases have similar elements and different outcomes—one a winner for the injured worker, the other a loser—it is always interesting to study the differences between them. For example, here we will review two recent cases that involved teachers being injured in a physical education setting.
In the case of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission v. Anderson, on November 20, 2012, an elementary school teacher moved her students from their main classroom to the gym to attend their physical education class. The focus of the class was gymnastics. The teacher later returned for her students. She asked the physical education instructor if she could demonstrate a move for her students on the balance beam, and the physical education instructor agreed. The school teacher proceeded to fall from the balance beam, injuring her leg in the process. The respondent denied benefits, “contending that the conduct of the claimant in getting up on the balance beam was unforeseen, unreasonable, and not contemplated by the defendant so as to remove her from the scope of employment.” The arbitrator rejected the respondent’s argument, proceeding to award the injured worker benefits.
The Commission affirmed the decision, the Circuit Court reversed it, and finally, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court’s decision. The Circuit Court gave the reason that the trial court “erroneously determined that the claimant’s accident did not arise out of her employment as a matter of law.”
Some of the reasoning in this decision involved:
- The Commission pointing out that it was not unforeseeable or unreasonable that the teacher would attempt to instruct the students in “the finer points of a school sanctioned activity that she happened to have personal experience in.” This is referencing the fact that the teacher in question did in fact have experience in gymnastics.
- She claimed to have done the act for the benefit of the students, and that it was all done with the approval and help of the PE teacher.
- She testified that she had been previously allowed to participate in other aspects of the physical education curriculum.
- The Commission took the stance that using the balance beam was not inherently dangerous, as the respondent had allowed children to use the balance beam for years.
So, in the end, the elementary school teacher who went outside her normal job duties to use a balance beam, injuring herself in the process, won her workers’ compensation claim.
In contrast, let us look at the case of Thompson v. Triopia Community Unit School District 27. On December 19, 2013, a physical education teacher was waiting for his students near the locker room. He witnessed a student run up the wall and jump. He then stated that he could in fact accomplish the same feat, and his students issued him a challenge. On his second try to perform the stunt, he felt a pop in his ankle, was then seen at a hospital, and discovered he had a torn Achilles tendon. The injured worker testified that he ran up the wall to engage with and bond with his students, to challenge them, and to be a role model. However, the PE instructor did concede that there were other less hazardous ways he could accomplish such goals.
The arbitrator ultimately denied benefits, and, upon review, the Commission affirmed the arbitrator’s decision. Some of the reasons included:
- Running up the wall was not part of the regular class exercises.
- The activity was initiated by the students.
- The whole situation was more of a personal activity decision rather than a risk inherent to his employment as a physical education teacher.
In this case, a physical education teacher who took up his students on a physical challenge outside of normal activities—and injured himself in the process—ultimately lost his Illinois workers’ compensation case.
Most Illinois workers’ compensation attorneys would agree that both of these were difficult cases. When you simplify it to that common factor, an important point to take away is that one of these cases was a winner, despite how difficult it was, and how many years it had to be fought in court. No matter how insurmountable the odds, it is always worth obtaining a free consultation with an Illinois workers’ compensation attorney.