CARTERSVILLE CITY SCHOOLS et al.
MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.
workers' compensation action, an administrative law judge
("ALJ") for the State Board of Workers'
Compensation granted Celia Norris Johnson's claim for
benefits after finding that she sustained an injury arising
out of and in the course of her employment. The Board's
Appellate Division ("Appellate Division") reversed
the ALJ's decision, finding no evidence to support the
award, and denied benefits. Johnson then appealed to the
Superior Court of Bartow County, which reversed the Appellate
Division, thus reinstating the award of benefits to Johnson.
Pursuant to a granted application for discretionary appeal,
Cartersville City Schools and Technology Insurance Company
(collectively, "Cartersville City Schools") now
appeal, arguing the superior court made several errors in
reaching its decision. We affirm because the Appellate
Division misconstrued the legal framework for determining
whether an injury arose out of employment and therefore
rendered a decision contrary to law.
to OCGA § 34-9-103 (a), "[a]ny party dissatisfied
with a decision of an [ALJ] of the trial division of the
State Board of Workers' Compensation may appeal that
decision to the [A]ppellate [D]ivision of the State Board of
Workers' Compensation which shall have original appellate
jurisdiction in all workers' compensation cases."
"The Appellate Division is authorized to weigh the
evidence of record and assess the credibility of
witnesses." Stokes v. Coweta Cty. Bd. of Educ.,
313 Ga.App. 505, 506 (722 S.E.2d 118) (2012) (citation and
If, after assessing the evidence of record, the Appellate
Division determines that the findings of the ALJ were
supported by a preponderance of the competent and credible
evidence, the Appellate Division must accept the factual
findings of the ALJ. But, if after assessing the evidence of
record, the [A]ppellate [D]ivision concludes the award does
not meet the statute's evidentiary standards, the
[A]ppellate [D]ivision may substitute its own alternative
findings for those of the ALJ, and enter an award
Id. (citations omitted).
to OCGA § 34-9-105 (b), the parties have a right of
direct appeal to the superior court after a workers'
compensation decision becomes final at the administrative
level. "As a reviewing court, the superior court applies
an any-evidence standard of review to the Board's
findings of fact, construing the evidence in the light most
favorable to the party prevailing before the Board, and lacks
authority to substitute itself as a fact-finding body in lieu
of the Board." Stokes, 313 Ga.App. at 506
(citations omitted). But "erroneous applications of law
to undisputed facts, as well as decisions based on erroneous
theories of law are subject to the de novo standard of
review" in the superior court. Home Depot v.
McCreary, 306 Ga.App. 805, 809 (2) (703 S.E.2d 392)
(2010) (citation and punctuation omitted). "Appeals to
this Court are governed by the same standards of review as
appeals to the superior court under OCGA §
34-9-105." Stokes, 313 Ga.App. at 507
in the light most favorable to Cartersville City Schools as
the party which prevailed before the Board's Appellate
Division, the record shows the following. On October 7, 2014,
Johnson was teaching fifth grade at Cartersville Elementary
School. While instructing the students, Johnson walked back
to her desk to put an image up on the smartboard. She then
turned from her computer and desk to walk back to the front
of the classroom and fell, injuring her knee.
the surgical repair of her knee, Johnson filed a workers'
compensation claim. At the administrative hearing on her
claim, the only issue in contention between the parties was
whether Johnson's knee injury arose out of her employment
or was a non-compensable "idiopathic" injury. The
ALJ found Johnson's knee injury to be causally connected
to her employment and granted workers' compensation
benefits. Specifically, the ALJ determined that Johnson's
necessary swift movements and the configuration of her
classroom caused her to "place acute stress on her knee
resulting in the injury she sustained." The ALJ went on
to find that these "external factors . . . created a
risk and caused a danger which was peculiar to her work
environment that causally connects her employment to her
City Schools appealed the decision to the Appellate Division,
arguing the ALJ erred in finding Johnson's injury arose
out of her employment and was not idiopathic. The Appellate
Division reversed the ALJ's decision, finding no evidence
to support the ALJ's determination that Johnson's
knee injury was caused by her having to weave through the
tight classroom configuration. The Appellate Division further
concluded that Johnson's knee injury was not compensable
because "the act of turning and walking was not a risk
unique to [her] work, and is a risk to which she would have
been equally exposed apart from the employment." Rather,
the Appellate Division concluded that Johnson's
"injury was caused by an idiopathic fall[.]"
appealed to the Bartow County Superior Court, which reversed
the Appellate Division and reinstated the workers'
compensation award. In its order, the superior court noted
that the Appellate Division had employed an incorrect legal
standard regarding causation when reaching its decision, and
reasoned that the Appellate Division's standard
"would label any injury that could be incurred off-site
as 'idiopathic.'" The superior court further
held that there was no evidence to indicate that
Johnson's fall was idiopathic because her injury
"arose out of her performing her duties as a classroom
teacher." This appeal by Cartersville City Schools
City Schools first argues that the superior court exceeded
its authority and (a) improperly shifted the burden of
demonstrating an accident to it, (b) deviated from the
findings of fact reached by the Appellate Division, (c)
improperly re-weighed evidence, and (d) failed to view
evidence in the light most favorable to the party prevailing
before the Appellate Division in violation of OCGA §
34-9-105 (c). Cartersville City Schools further argues that
the superior court violated stare decisis and applied a new
legal standard in finding that Johnson did not sustain an
accidental injury to be compensable under the Workers'
Compensation Act, the injury must not only occur in the
course of the employment, but also must arise out of the
employment. OCGA § 34-9-1 (4). See also Chaparral
Boats, Inc. v. Heath, 269 Ga.App. 339, 340 (606 S.E.2d
567) (2004). Cartersville City School does not dispute the
finding that Johnson sustained her knee injury in the course
of employment because it occurred while she was teaching in
her classroom. Rather, the disputed issue is whether Johnson
carried her burden of showing by a preponderance of the
evidence that her accidental injury arose out of her
employment. See Chaparral Boats, Inc., 269 Ga.App.
to OCGA § 34-9-105 (c), in the absence of fraud, the
factual findings of the Appellate Division are conclusive,
but its decision may be set aside if it is found that the
facts do not support the decision, there is not sufficient
competent evidence in the record to warrant making the
decision, or the decision is contrary to law, among other
things. See OCGA § 34-9-105 (c) (3-5).
the superior court held that the Appellate Division's
conclusion that Johnson's fall was idiopathic was not
supported by the evidence because her injury "arose out
of her performing her duties as a classroom teacher."
The superior court further held that the Appellate Division
employed the incorrect legal standard to determine causation.
The superior court held that an injury arises out of
employment where the injury results "from a risk
reasonably incident to the employment" and went on to
note that "a risk is incident to the employment when it
belongs to, or is connected with, what a workman has to do in
fulfilling his contract of service." In holding that the
Appellate Division committed legal error in determining the
correct legal standard to apply when determining causation,
the superior court stated that this Court's decisions in
Chaparral Boats and St. Joseph's Hospital v.
Ward would "render almost any injury to be
not compensable unless the employee is run through by a
patented, proprietary Hyster pole." According to the
superior court, the Appellate Division's construction of
the term "idiopathic" used "a standard that
would label any injury that could be incurred off-site as
idiopathic." The superior court noted that this was