Articles Posted in Workers’ Compensation Injuries

Under Iowa workers’ compensation law the issue of apportionment has been an unclear area that has led to a great deal of litigation.  Iowa Code Section 85.34(7)(b)(1) covers injuries that occurred before July 1, 2017 and provides:

“If an injured employee has a preexisting disability that was caused by a prior injury arising out of and in the course of employment with the same employer, and the preexisting disability was compensable under the same paragraph of subsection 2 as the employee’s present injury, the employer is liable for the combined disability that is caused by the injuries, measured in relation to the employee’s condition immediately prior to the first injury.  In this instance, the employer’s liability for the combined disability shall be considered to be already partially satisfied to the extent of the percentage of disability for which the employee was previously compensated by the employer.”

The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner issued a decision on August 31, 2018 in the case of Haltom v. JBS USA, LLC and American Zurich Insurance Company.  The Haltom case deals with the issue of apportionment, and also addresses a complex set of facts involving multiple injuries.

Going all the way back to 1920, Iowa workers’ compensation law has always been that employers hire an employee subject to any active or dormant health problem which renders a worker susceptible to injury, and the employer must exercise care to avoid injury to both the weak and infirm and the strong and healthy.

A material aggravation, worsening, lighting up or acceleration of any prior condition has been viewed as a compensable event ever since the initial enactment of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Statutes.

Over the years there have been numerous Iowa workers with preexisting conditions who recovered workers’ compensation benefits based on the principle that the worker’s physical labor accelerated their preexisting condition.

Under Iowa law head and back injuries are both compensated under an industrial disability analysis.  Industrial disability tries to measure a worker’s loss of earning capacity, and not just the functional disability from an injury.  Functional impairment is an element to be considered in determining the loss of earning capacity, but consideration must also be given to the injured worker’s age, education, qualifications, experience, motivation, loss of earnings, severity situs of the injury, work restrictions, inability to engage in employment for which the worker is fitted, and the employer’s offer of work or failure to so offer.  Loss of industrial disability/loss of earning capacity is paid as a percentage of 500 weeks.

In the recent July 3, 2018 appeal decision of Bahe v. Iowa Department of Transportation, the Workers Compensation Commissioner affirmed a decision relating to a case in which the worker suffered both a head injury and back injuries.

The claimant was injured while operating a snow plow during a blizzard as part of his job with the DOT.  The snow plow went off the road and into a ditch.  The claimant was unconscious when he was found by emergency responders.  The medical providers documented that he had a large contusion on the top of his head.  The initial assessment by the doctors was that the claimant had suffered a closed head injury and concussion.

For injuries that occurred prior to July 1, 2017 the rules for when a workers’ compensation claim can be brought in Iowa law can be found here on our website.

For injuries that occurred on or after July 1, 2017 the rules have changed.  Fewer trucks drivers can now bring claims in Iowa.  Iowa Code Section 85.71 provides that where a truck driver is injured outside the State of Iowa, the truck driver is only entitled to bring a claim under Iowa law if at the time of the injury one of the following are applicable:

  1. The employer has a place of business in the state and the employee regularly works at or from that place of business.

If an injured worker in an Iowa workers’ compensation case is found to have suffered permanent total disability, then the worker is entitled to receive weekly benefits for the rest of their life.

Under Iowa law, permanent total disability does not mean a state of absolute helplessness.  Permanent total disability occurs when the injury wholly disables the employee from performing work that the employee’s experience, training, education, intelligence and physical capabilities would otherwise permit the employee to perform.  A finding that an injured worker could perform some work despite the worker’s physical and educational limitations does not rule out a finding of permanent total disability.

In a recent May 3, 2018 appeal decision in the case of Houston v. Harding Enterprises, LLC d/b/a Tuffy Auto Service Center and Accident Fund National Insurance Company, the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner reviewed and approved a decision in which permanent total disability benefits had been awarded.

In some Iowa work comp cases foot or leg injuries end up causing low back problems to the injured worker because of changes in their gait.  Iowa workers’ compensation law provides that if a worker suffers an injury to one part of the body that ends up causing an injury to a second part of the body, both of the injured body parts are compensable under Iowa work comp law.  The most common type of a spill over injury is a worker who injures his foot or leg and ends up with a limp.  Sometimes the limp will unfortunately cause hip or low back problems.  In this situation the worker is entitled to receive compensation for both the original leg injury and the later back injury that develops as a result of the limp.

Additionally, an injury to a scheduled member that results in an injury to an unscheduled member will be treated as a combined unscheduled injury.  For example, if the worker injures his leg, the maximum recovery the worker can receive is 220 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits.  If the worker has a 10% impairment of the leg, he is therefore entitled to 22 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits.

If the same worker’s leg injury causes back problems, the injury to both the leg and back shift out of the scheduled injury category to the unscheduled category.  For unscheduled injuries the worker is entitled to be compensated for the extent to which the injuries affect the worker’s future earning capacity.  Generally, a worker will receive higher compensation for an unscheduled injury than for a scheduled injury.

I.  MEDICAL BACKGROUND OF COMPLEX REGIONAL PAIN SYNDROME

The cause of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) is not well understood.  The current theories are that CRPS is caused by an injury or an abnormality of the peripheral and central nervous systems.  CRPS generally occurs as the result of a physical injury or trauma such as infections, surgery and heart attacks.

There are two main types of CRPS.  Type 1 is also known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSD).  Type 1 CRPS develops after an injury or illness that does not directly damage the nerves in the affected limb.

Under Iowa workers’ compensation law a worker can receive substantially more benefits for injuries to certain body parts if the worker also had a prior injury to a different body part.  These types of cases are called Second Injury Fund claims.  The law relating to the Second Injury Fund of Iowa is set out in Iowa Code Sections 85.63 to 85.69.  The requirements for a worker to receive a Second Injury Fund award are as follows:

  1. The worker must have a work injury that results in permanent disability to one of his hands, arms, feet, legs or eyes.
  1. The worker must have suffered an earlier permanent loss to one of those same body parts. The earlier loss does not have to be related to a work injury.

Sometimes a relatively minor physical injury can lead to a very severe mental injury, and even an inability to work.

The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner recently addressed such a situation in an Appeal Decision issued on December 12, 2017 in the case of Fitch v. Des Moines Public Schools and EMC Insurance Companies.

The Claimant in the Fitch case was a special education teacher who was assaulted by a student.  The Claimant suffered substantial cuts and bruises in the attack, but the physical injuries healed within several weeks.

The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner filed an Appeal Decision on December 1, 2017 in the case of Wilson v. Idex Corporation and Liberty Mutual Insurance.  One of the issues in the Wilson case was how non-work health problems that the Claimant developed after his work injury should affect the amount of disability to be awarded.

Under Iowa Work Comp law post-injury accidents are not to be used to reduce the amount of disability awarded.  The measurement of industrial disability is determined at the time healing period ends.

In the Wilson case the Claimant had worked for Viking Pump for 38 years.  At the time of his work injury the Claimant was a furnace tender.  The furnace tender job was very physically demanding and the furnace tenders worked a great deal of overtime.