May 25, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Where Liability Admitted in Workers’ Compensation Case, Burden Shifts to Respondent if Liability Later Disputed

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Rodriguez v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office on August 16, 2012.

Compensable Accidental Employment Injuries—Burden of Proof—Admission of Liability.

Helen M. Rodriguez appealed from an order issued by the Industrial Claim Appeals Office (Panel) in favor of the City of Brighton and its insurer, CIRSA (collectively, Brighton). The order was set aside and the case was remanded with directions.

Rodriguez works for the City of Brighton as a special events coordinator. One morning, she fell while descending the stairs to her office. She was taken to the emergency room, where she received a CT scan and an MRI. The tests revealed unruptured brain aneurysms.

Brighton initially admitted liability for Rodriguez’s disability and medical benefits. It later sought to withdraw its admission, arguing the injuries did not arise out of her employment.

An administrative law judge (ALJ) found that (1) because Brighton initially admitted liability, it bore the burden of proof under CRS § 8-43-201(1); (2) Rodriguez’s fall was not caused by her aneurysms but was “unexplained”; and (3) because her fall was unexplained, her injuries were not compensable. Brighton therefore sustained its burden of proving non-compensability and could withdraw its admission of liability. Rodriguez appealed to the Panel, which affirmed the ALJ’s order.

Rodriguez argued the ALJ erred in ruling her injury was not compensable. The Court of Appeals agreed. An employee may recover for accidental injuries “arising out of and in the course of the employee’s employment.” It was undisputed Rodriguez was injured in the course of her employment; the question was on the “arising out of” prong. Ordinarily, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving this element. Here, the burden was shifted to the employer because of Brighton’s initial admission of liability. Consequently, the finding that the fall was unexplained was a failure of proof on Brighton’s part. Because Brighton failed to sustain its burden of proof, the ALJ erred in allowing it to withdraw its admission of liability. The Panel’s order was set aside and the case was remanded to the ALJ with directions to reinstate Brighton’s general admission and to conduct further proceedings as necessary.

Summary and full case available here.

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