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Rulings saying knee injury not caused by work overturned

A split Supreme Court of Oklahoma on Tuesday vacated a series of earlier rulings that a nursing assistant failed to prove that a work-related incident caused a sudden injury to her knee, ruling the woman’s injury as compensable.

On March 22, 2015, Emilee Ann Mullendore was in a nutrition room at Mercy Hospital in Ardmore, Oklahoma, preparing eight 1-pound bags of ice for patients when she turned to open the door, took a step and testified that she “felt my right foot slip out to the right and then the top part of my leg and my knee turned in to the left,” resulting in a confirmed injury that was referred to as “unexplained,” according to documents in Emilee Anne Mullendore v. Mercy Hospital Ardmore and the Workers’ Compensation Commission, filed in Oklahoma City.

Following her filing of a workers compensation claim, two doctors examined Ms. Mullendore, who had trouble walked after the injury. One testified that she had suffered a work-related injury but the other found the injury — described as a relocation of the knee — to be idiopathic, explaining it as a “an idiopathic condition leading to an idiopathic fall” and adding: “Idiopathic means something that arises spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause or something peculiar to the individual,” records state.

An administrative law judge subsequently relied “almost exclusively on the findings of the (second doctor) that Mullendore had a pre-existing condition, a patellofemoral malalignment, that created an instability then causing her to fall and injuring her knee while at work,” documents stated.

Both the state’s comp commission and the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, stating that because Ms. Mullendore failed to prove that anything external caused her knee injury that it did not occur as a result of her work as a certified nursing assistant, according to documents.

The state Supreme Court, however, vacated the administrative law judge’s ruling and reversed both subsequent rulings. The five-judge majority held “that there is a preponderance of evidence that Mullendore suffered a ‘compensable injury’ within the meaning of (state law). Respondent’s arguments disputing Mullendore suffered a compensable injury are not credible.”

The ruling states “we have recognized that the term accidental injury is not to be given a narrow or restricted meaning but rather is to be liberally construed.”

Four judges dissented, one only in part and another writing that, per workers compensation law, “The burden of proof lies entirely with Mullendore, and if she has not met her burden of proof, she cannot win — regardless of what one thinks of her employer’s rebuttal evidence.”

The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Bob Burke, an Oklahoma City-based attorney who represented Ms. Mullendore wrote in an e-mail to Business Insurance that the ruling highlights concerns with the Oklahoma workers comp reforms enacted in 2014.

“Even though the claimant was not certain how she hurt her knee, the fact that she was symptom free at the time of the event, and that she had no pre-existing injury, she fit the new definition of a compensable injury,” he wrote, adding that 40 similar cases are pending.

Neither the self-insured hospital system nor the hospital’s lawyers could immediately be reached for comment.