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Builders Square, Inc. v. Industrial Commission

June 24, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 10th Judicial Circuit Peoria County, Illinois No. 01-MR-358 Honorable John A. Barra Judge, Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Holdridge

Joyce Peters (the decedent) fell while working for Builders Square on October 28, 1998, and died shortly afterward. Her husband, Ralph Peters (Peters), filed a claim against Builders Square seeking medical expenses, burial expenses, and death benefits under section 7 of the Workers' Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/7 (West 2000)). The matter proceeded to an arbitration hearing where the arbitrator found that the decedent suffered a compensable accident, and that the accident was a causative factor in her death. Accordingly, the arbitrator awarded Peters $28,827.30 in medical expenses, $4,200 in burial expenses, and $316.30 per week in death benefits.

Builders Square appealed to the Illinois Industrial Commission (Commission), which reversed the arbitrator's decision. The Commission found that Peters failed to prove (1) accidental injuries arising out of the decedent's employment, and (2) a causal connection between the decedent's work and her death. Peters appealed to the Peoria County circuit court, which reversed the Commission's decision and remanded for entry of an order consistent with the arbitrator's findings. Builders Square then filed this appeal claiming the circuit court erred in reversing the Commission's decision. We agree. Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's judgment and reinstate the Commission's decision.


The decedent's pre-existing medical records document an incident in September of 1993 where she fell and injured her right ankle. Peters testified that he was not aware of the decedent having any problems with dizziness or passing out. To his knowledge, the decedent was never diagnosed with arrhythmia. However, their daughter said the decedent experienced an intermittent fast heart rate, and the medical records document a cardiac test in 1995 or 1996 where she wore a heart monitor for 24 hours. Apparently the test did not lead to treatment or medication for heart problems. A medical record from March of 1997 indicates that the decedent inexplicably lost approximately 40 pounds in just a few months. She also sustained three additional falls in 1998: once while carrying groceries up some stairs, once after slipping on wet grass in a ditch, and once after tripping on a ledge while carrying laundry.

The decedent was 54 years old when she fell at Builder's Square. She worked in the lawn and garden department with Bernard Beever (a co-worker and long-time friend), who witnessed the incident. Beever testified that the decedent was using an Exacto knife to open boxes of merchandise stacked on two pallets. The pallets were four feet square and approximately six inches high. The boxes were stacked one-high on the pallets and were approximately two to three feet tall. The decedent bent over the boxes while performing her work. She was in an aisle approximately 10 feet wide with metal shelves on both sides.

Beever spoke with the decedent for approximately five minutes before she fell. She appeared completely normal at that time; particularly, she did not exhibit signs of paleness, slurred speech, perspiration, confusion, or imbalance. After their conversation, the decedent asked Beever to retrieve a pallet jack. When Beever had walked approximately 10 feet from the decedent to retrieve the jack, he turned around and saw her straighten up. After straightening up, she staggered two or three steps backward into the metal shelving and then collapsed face first on the concrete floor. Beever did not know if the decedent was holding her Exacto knife when she fell. After hitting the ground, the decedent shook violently for three seconds and began looking pale. She had not looked pale when she straightened up and staggered backward. Beever testified that the aisle was open to the general public, and there was no object on the floor--or defect in the floor--that caused the decedent to trip.

The decedent was ultimately taken to Saint Francis Medical Center where she underwent a CT scan, EKG monitoring, and surgery by Doctor William Olivero. The surgical procedure involved a left frontal craniotomy with evacuation of a subdural hematoma. The decedent's post-operative diagnosis was an acute left subdural hematoma with a diffuse subarachnoid hemorrhage. She died shortly after the surgery. The EKG monitoring did not reveal evidence of a heart malfunction or arrhythmia.

Doctor Olivero testified that a subdural hematoma is a blood clot between the brain and the dura. He said 99% of all subdural hematomas are caused by trauma. In addition to her hematoma, the decedent exhibited venous bleeding along the floor of the middle fossa. Doctor Olivero explained that venous bleeding is more likely to stem from trauma than from other causes. In his opinion, the decedent's death was caused by a combination of the hematoma and the subarachnoid hemorrhage. He stated: "The more likely thing is that both of them were caused by trauma, since they happened at the same time." He did not know why the decedent staggered and fell in the first place.

Doctor Robert Collins (a neurologist retained by Peters) reviewed the decedent's medical records and concluded that her subdural hematoma and subarachnoid hemorrhage resulted from trauma. The doctor did not know why the decedent staggered and fell in the first place. However, he believed the cause was not likely idiopathic because the decedent experienced no prior problems with fainting, dizziness, or vertigo.

Doctor David Schenker (retained by Builders Square) opined that the decedent's fall resulted from an idiopathic condition such as cardiac arrhythmia or a cerebral hemorrhage. He believed the decedent's prior falls raised the possibility of an arteriovenous malformation that was not detected by the CT scan. In his view, such a condition could cause episodic falls based on transient cerebral ischemia, seizure activity, or bleeding.

Doctor William Buckingham (also retained by Builders Square) opined that the decedent suffered a cardiac rhythm disturbance, which caused her to faint and fall. He supported his opinion by stating that the decedent had experienced past syncopal episodes with associated pallor. The doctor explained that heart monitors like the one the decedent wore in 1995 or 1996 do not detect all heart conditions. Such monitors will not indicate a cardiac condition unless they happen to be worn at the moment of a cardiac event. Accordingly, the doctor explained that testing must last longer than 24 hours to provide a reliable diagnosis.

Doctor Buckingham also observed that the decedent's body was affected by a particular rash. In his experience, the rash implicated systematic lupus erythematosis as another possible idiopathic factor in the decedent's fall.

After considering this evidence, the arbitrator found that the decedent sustained a compensable unexplained fall. According to the arbitrator: "Multiple reasonable inferences can be made from the evidence to explain [the decedent's] fall. [Her] foot could have got stuck underneath the pallet, causing her to fall backward. [She] could have been startled by something she found when she opened the box. [She] could have lost her grip on the cardboard box when she was opening the box causing her to fall backwards." The arbitrator also found that the "accidental occurrence" was a causative factor in the decedent's death. The Commission reversed the arbitrator's decision, attributing the incident to an idiopathic ...

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