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Clements v. Aramark Corp.

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

May 29, 2018


          Argued January 24, 2018

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision by the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Second District dismissing the plaintiff's claim for certain disability benefits, brought to the Workers' Compensation Review Board, which affirmed the commissioner's decision, and the plaintiff appealed to this court. Reversed; judgment directed.

          Gary W. Huebner, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Dominick C. Statile, with whom, on the brief, was Tushar G. Shah, for the appellee (defendants).

          Keller, Prescott and Bright, Js.


          BRIGHT, J.

         The principal issue in this appeal is the compensability, under the Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31-275 et seq., of an injury to an employee that occurred on an employer's premises when the employee became lightheaded, fell, and hit her head while walking to her work station before the start of her shift. The plaintiff, Sharon Clements, appeals from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Review Board (board) affirming the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Second District (commissioner) in favor of the defendant employer, Aramark Corporation (defendant), and the employer's insurer, Sedgwick CMS, Inc. The plaintiff claims that the board erred in holding that, because the plaintiff's fall was caused by her personal infirmity, rather than a workplace condition, her resultant head injury did not arise out of and in the course of her employment within the meaning of the act. We agree and, accordingly, reverse the decision of the board.

         The following undisputed facts, which are set forth in the commissioner's decision or are ascertained from uncontested portions of the record, are relevant to our consideration of the issue on appeal. The plaintiff, while employed by the defendant, served as a mess attendant at the Coast Guard Academy in New London (academy). Her duties included serving food and beverages, and cleaning up after meals. She typically worked during both breakfast and lunch. On the morning of September 19, 2012, the plaintiff drove to work, parked her vehicle at the academy at approximately 5:40 a.m., and exited her vehicle. She walked a short distance from her vehicle to a building. The path was short, not uphill or inclined in any way. The plaintiff did not trip. The plaintiff testified that, after entering the building and walking down a hallway, she ‘‘went through the door to go out to get into the next building, '' where she became lightheaded and passed out, falling backward ‘‘on the [asphalt], ''[1] and hitting her head on the ground. No one witnessed her fall. After she was discovered by coworkers, someone called for assistance. Members of the New London Fire Department arrived and found the plaintiff ‘‘lying on the ground'' with ‘‘a bump on the back of her head, '' ‘‘unable to sign [a] consent form because of her level of consciousness . . . .'' The plaintiff was taken to Lawrence Memorial Hospital (hospital). Hospital reports indicate that the plaintiff suffered from a syncopal episode and that she was diagnosed with ecchymosis and swelling.[2] A treating physician, Neer Zeevi, and hospital records, indicate that the plaintiff's syncope likely was cardiac or cardiogenic in etiology.

         While in the emergency room, the plaintiff suffered from cardiac arrest. During her stay in the hospital, the plaintiff had a pacemaker inserted. In a discharge summary report, John Nelson, a neurologist, opined: ‘‘Apparently she had significant head trauma secondary to her fall. While in the emergency department, she again lost consciousness and was seen to have asystole[3]on monitoring. [Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)] was initiated and the patient had return of spontaneous rhythm and blood pressure shortly afterwards. Per the [emergency room] physician, CPR was reportedly begun within [twenty] seconds on onset of asystole and was only carried out for approximately [ten] seconds before the patient experienced spontaneous return of rhythm.'' (Footnote added.)

         The plaintiff has a history of cardiac disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, and an irregular heartbeat. She also has a family history of coronary disease. Her discharge records set forth, inter alia, the following diagnosis: asystolic arrest, cardiogenic syncope with concussive head injury, and hypothyroidism. On the basis of these findings, the commissioner determined that ‘‘the [plaintiff's] injury did not arise out of her employment with the [defendant], but was caused by a cardiogenic syncope.''

         The plaintiff appealed from the commissioner's decision to the board. She claimed, in relevant part, that the commissioner had misapplied the law and improperly determined that her injury did not arise out of her employment. The board disagreed, concluding that ‘‘[t]here is no question that the [plaintiff] has been left with a significant disability as a result of the concussive injury which is the subject of this appeal. Nevertheless, the [plaintiff] provided the . . . commissioner with no evidence [that] would substantiate the claim that her employment contributed in any fashion to the fall [that] led to the injury or that the injury would not have occurred had the claimant been somewhere else at the time.'' Accordingly, the board affirmed the decision of the commissioner, ruling in favor of the defendant. This appeal followed.

         We begin by setting forth the standard of review applicable to workers' compensation appeals. ‘‘The commissioner has the power and duty, as the trier of fact, to determine the facts . . . and [n]either the . . . board nor this court has the power to retry facts. . . . The conclusions drawn by [the commissioner] from the facts found [also] must stand unless they result from an incorrect application of the law to the subordinate facts or from an inference illegally or unreasonably drawn from them. . . . Cases that present pure questions of law, however, invoke a broader standard of review than is ordinarily involved in deciding whether, in light of the evidence, the agency has acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally or in abuse of its discretion. . . . [I]t is well established that, in resolving issues of statutory construction under the act, we are mindful that the act indisputably is a remedial statute that should be construed generously to accomplish its purpose. . . . The humanitarian and remedial purposes of the act counsel against an overly narrow construction that unduly limits eligibility for workers' compensation. . . . Accordingly, [i]n construing workers' compensation law, we must resolve statutory ambiguities or lacunae in a manner that will further the remedial purpose of the act. . . . [T]he purposes of the act itself are best served by allowing the remedial legislation a reasonable sphere of operation considering those purposes.'' (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Hart v. Federal Express Corp., 321 Conn. 1, 18-19, 135 A.3d 38 (2016).

         ‘‘Our scope of review of the actions of the board is similarly limited. . . . The role of this court is to determine whether the review [board's] decision results from an incorrect application of the law to the subordinate facts or from an inference illegally or unreasonably drawn from them.'' (Internal quotation ...

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