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140241 - Harris v General Motors

Alesia Harris, Personal Representative of the Estate of Henry J. Harris, Deceased,
 
Michael J. Cantor
 
Plaintiff-Appellant,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals
 
 
(Worker’s Comp Appellate Comm)
 
General Motors Corporation,
 
Gerald M. Marcinkoski
 
Defendant-Appellee.
 

Summary

​While at work at a General Motors Corporation factory, Henry Harris fell back and struck his head on the tile floor of a men’s room; he died a few days later. The only other person in the men’s room did not see Harris fall, and there was conflicting testimony about whether Harris was moving when he fell.

Alesia Harris, Harris’ widow, filed a claim for worker’s compensation benefits. After hearing from three expert witnesses as to the circumstances of Harris’ fall and death, the magistrate concluded that the plaintiff had failed to establish a connection between Harris’ work at General Motors and his injury, saying that Harris “passed out for some unknown cause of a purely personal nature and fell as if in a dead faint striking his head, without any evidence of a work inducement, such a fumes, sticky or slippery floor, etc.” Based on these findings, the magistrate concluded that the case was governed by the law of idiopathic falls set forth in Ledbetter v Michigan Carton Co, and McClain v Chrysler Corp, and that the plaintiff was not entitled to benefits.

The plaintiff appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appellate Commission, arguing that the magistrate’s decision was not supported by competent, material, and substantial evidence. The overall record, the plaintiff argued, established that Harris suffered a work-related injury. But the WCAC affirmed the magistrate in a divided opinion. The WCAC majority agreed with the plaintiff that the magistrate had made a couple of factual errors, but these errors were harmless, the majority said. The magistrate’s decision to accept the testimony of General Motors’ expert was reasonable, the majority concluded.

The dissenting commissioner agreed with the plaintiff that the magistrate’s factual errors were not harmless, and concluded that the magistrate erred in analyzing the case as an “idiopathic” fall rather than an “unexplained” fall. The dissent concluded that, while idiopathic falls on a level floor are not compensable, an unexplained fall generally is compensable. The dissent would have remanded the case to the magistrate to have him explain why he concluded that the fall was idiopathic.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the WCAC in an unpublished per curiam opinion. In the absence of fraud, if there is “any competent evidence” in the record, the WCAC’s findings of fact are conclusive, the appellate court said. If it appears that the WCAC carefully examined the record, was aware of the deference to be given to the magistrate’s decision, did not “misapprehend or grossly misapply” the substantial evidence standard, and gave an adequate reason grounded in the record, “the judicial tendency should be to affirm.” Questions of law, however, are reviewed de novo, the Court of Appeals explained. The panel held that the WCAC “did not commit an error of law by finding that plaintiff had to show a causal relationship between a work-related event and decedent’s injury or that decedent’s injury was somehow aggravated by the conditions at work.” The panel explained that an injury is “not compensable simply because it occurred while the employee was in the course of employment on the employer’s premises.” An injury does not arise out of employment, the Court of Appeals held, where the predominant cause of the harm was attributable to personal factors, and where employment circumstances did not significantly add to the risk of harm. The panel stated that the magistrate’s factual findings were conclusive because the record contained competent evidence in support of them. The plaintiff appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court which first denied leave to appeal but then, on reconsideration, granted oral argument on the application.