The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner entered an appeal decision on November 29, 2017 in the case of Heim v. A.Y. McDonald Mfg. Co.  The main issue in the Heim case was whether the worker had suffered permanent total disability.

Under Iowa law permanent total disability does not mean that a worker is injured so severely that they are helpless.  Instead, the test is whether the injury disables the employee from performing the type of work that their experience, training, education, intelligence and prior physical ability would otherwise permit them to perform.  (See here for a longer explanation of how pre-July 1, 2017 permanent total disability injuries are analyzed under the workers’ compensation system.  See here for an explanation of the change in how injuries are analyzed for post-July 1, 2017 Iowa work comp injuries.)

The claimant in the Heim case was 63 years old at the time of the workers’ compensation trial.  His formal education ended with high school.  His work history had generally involved physically demanding jobs.

At the time of his injuries the claimant worked as an inspector and frequently had to lift tote pans of parts that weighed up to 65 pounds.

The claimant had a history of back problems before his work injuries.  He had undergone back surgery in 1997 and 2009.  On October 26, 2011 the claimant’s doctor had given him paperwork to obtain a handicap car permit because of his back problems.

The claimant’s first work injury was on December 29, 2011 when he was picking up a tote pan of parts.  He felt severe pain down his lower back and down his right leg.  The claimant began conservative medical care and returned to work with a 5-pound lifting restriction.  The employer accommodated this restriction by having another inspector perform all of the claimant’s lifting.

The claimant suffered a second work injury on August 1, 2013 when he reached for a pan of parts that was falling.  He felt a snap in his back and pain went down to his right foot.  The claimant testified that the pain was so bad that he vomited.

Following the August 1, 2013 injury the claimant continued conservative care and his symptoms became worse and worse.  By June of 2014 the claimant reported to his doctor that he was going to retire.  His doctor provided him with new restrictions limiting his work to three hours per day.

The claimant did continue to work up until November 7, 2014 when he retired.  The claimant testified at trial that it was a financial decision to retire.  Because he was only working three hours per day he was not earning enough to pay his expenses.  By retiring he was able to begin drawing his pension and social security benefits.

The medical experts on behalf of the employer gave opinions that the work injuries of December 29, 2011 and August 1, 2013 did not substantially change the claimant’s condition, and that his preexisting injuries were the cause of his back problems.  The defense pointed out that the claimant had already started the process to get a handicap sticker for his car a month before his first injury date.

The employer also pointed out that they did not want the claimant to retire and wanted him to continue working.

The claimant’s medical experts gave the opinions that the December 29, 2011 injury may not have permanently aggravated the claimant’s condition; but the August 1, 2013 injury definitely caused a permanent aggravation of the claimant’s symptoms.  (See here for a longer explanation of the Iowa workers’ compensation law on the aggravation of preexisting conditions.)

The Commissioner ruled that the claimant had been forced to retire because of his work injury.

The Workers’ Compensation Commissioner found that the August 1, 2013 injury did indeed permanently aggravate the claimant’s back problems.  The Commissioner also found that the fact that the claimant could not work more than three hours a day, and needed an assistant to handle all lifting for him qualified him for permanent total disability.

Please be sure to contact us if you have any questions about serious work comp injuries or other questions about Iowa work comp law.