Vernell Harris was a 58-year-old Food and Nutritional Service Assistant I employed by the Howard County Board of Education. She was injured while dragging and lifting a 45-pound box of laundry detergent with a coworker. She filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission (WCC), which issued an order finding that she had suffered an accidental injury in the course of her employment and was entitled to compensation.
The Employer/Insurer appealed to the Circuit Court for Judicial Review and the jury returned a verdict in the Employer/Insurer's favor. Harris appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed, and then appealed to the Court of Appeals. She argued, despite state precedent, that an accidental injury under the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act does not require that the employee was engaged in an unusual activity.
Maryland was the first state in the nation to enact a workers' compensation statute in 1914; it compensated employees for accidental injuries occurring in extra-hazardous employment, excluding occupational diseases. In 1925, in Victory Sparker Co. v. Francks, the Court of Appeals explained that the phrase "accidental injury" under the act was broader than the term "accident."
Nevertheless, in 1927, the court imposed into the definition of accidental injury a requirement that the injury result from unusual activity. In Slacum v. Jolley, the court stated that it was essential that the claimant show that the injury was occasioned by some unusual and extraordinary condition in his employment not naturally and ordinarily incident thereto in order to be entitled to compensation. The court did not cite a case, in Maryland or elsewhere, as the foundation for this additional requirement.
The Harris Court
Justice Eldridge, in Harris v. Board of Education of Howard County 369 Md. 659, 802 A.2d 438 (2002), wrote for a unanimous Court of Appeals in restoring the original meaning to accidental injury as used in the Workers' Compensation Act, declaring that the unusual activity requirement was not supported by the plain language of the act, was contrary to other opinions issued by the court, represented a distinct minority view in the nation, and contravened the purpose of the act.
As of 2003, the act defined an accidental personal injury as any of the following:
- An accidental injury that arises out of and in the course of employment
- An injury caused by a willful or negligent act of a third person directed against a covered employee in the course of employment of the covered employee
- A disease or infection that naturally results from an accidental injury that arises out of and in the course of employment, including an occupational disease and frostbite or sunstroke caused by a weather condition
The court said that under the plain language of the statute, what must be accidental is the injury and not the activity giving rise to the injury.
In 1932, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit refused to inject the unusual activity requirement into analysis of the same language in the Longshoremen's and Harbor Worker's Compensation Act. Justice Parker declared that the statutory language says nothing about unusual or extraordinary conditions and there is no reasonable basis for reading such words into the statute. The court stated further that only a small minority of jurisdictions have adopted the unusual activity requirement.
Contrary Prior Decisions
The court said that the erroneous judicial insertion of the unusual activity requirement into the act had not been uniformly followed. For example, even after the Slacum case, in Baltimore v. Schwind, the court said that an accidental injury is the result of an untoward event which the employee neither expected nor intended. Acknowledging at least four different lines of court of appeals cases concerning the issue, the court concluded that the unusual activity requirement for workers' compensation should be abandoned.
Purpose of the Act
The court stated that the Workers' Compensation Act is to "be construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purpose." Any uncertainty in the law should be resolved in favor of the claimant.
Therefore, the court found that Harris, both as a matter of common sense and as a matter of law, suffered a covered accidental personal injury. The court additionally overruled Slacum and similar prior decisions.
Injured employees should contact an experienced workers' compensation attorney for counsel regarding eligibility for benefits. Prompt action can help secure financial stability in a traumatic time, freeing the employee to focus on healing.