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Maryland Employers Beware! There is Nothing Unusual About Workplace Accidents When It Comes to Awarding Workers' Compensation

In order for an employee to be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for an accidental injury, the injury must arise out of and in the course of the employment. In addition, under Maryland law, a long-standing series of cases required that a workplace injury must also arise as a result of “unusual activity”. Recently, in Harris v. Board of Education of Howard County, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the “unusual activity” requirement.

Harris was employed by a high school in cafeteria services. One day while bending over during the course of performing routine duties of her job, Harris severely strained her back. Harris sought medical attention and subsequently filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Commission, which alleged that she was disabled as a result of her back injury. The Commission ruled for Harris, finding that she was entitled to compensation because her injury arose out of and in the course of her employment. On direct appeal to the Circuit Court for Howard County, the trial judge denied Harris’ motion for judgment at the close of all of the evidence, finding that the issue as to whether the injury arose as a result of an “unusual activity” needed to be submitted to the jury. The jury ruled in favor of her employer. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, granted Harris’ petition to review her case. The Court noted the series of cases which required that in order for an injury to be compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act, the injury must not only arise out of and in the course of employment, but it also must result from “unusual activity”. Under that framework, an employee, such as Harris, who was injured while performing routine activities in the workplace, would not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. However, a contradictory and parallel series of cases did not require proof that a workplace injury arose out of “unusual activity” in order to be compensable. The Court was thus faced with determining which line of cases was consistent with the Workers’ Compensation Act.

In a unanimous decision, the Court overturned the line of cases which required that an injury must arise out of an “unusual activity”. The Court noted that the workers compensation laws of most other states do not contain such a requirement. The Court characterized the “unusual activity” requirement as a judicially-invented aberration which was contrary to the intent and purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The Court concluded with the oft-cited proposition that the Workers’ Compensation Act should be liberally construed in favor of employees in order to accomplish its “benevolent purposes”.

The “unusual activity” requirement had often resulted in claimants alleging that their injuries were the result of a “slip, fall, or twist”. Such an allegation is no longer required. With the Harris decision, Maryland’s Court of Appeals has clarified Maryland law and ruled that employees are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries they incur while performing their normal job duties.