The Iowa Workers’ Compensation law on when an employee is entitled to work comp benefits from a fall on the job has been very uncertain for a number of years. On November 16, 2018 the Iowa Supreme Court issued a decision that helps clarify the Iowa law. The Supreme Court case was Bluml v. Dee Jay’s, Inc. d/b/a Long John Silvers and Commerce & Industry Insurance Company. In the Bluml case the Iowa Supreme Court set out different rules for different types of fall situations:
- Where an employee falls from an elevated position such as a ladder or scaffolding the injury will generally be compensable under Iowa Workers’ Compensation law.
- Where an employee falls while on stairs the injury will also generally be compensable under Iowa Workers’ Compensation law.
- Where the fall is because of an increased risk related to the job such as a slippery work surface the resulting injury will also generally be compensable as a work comp injury.
- Where an employee falls on a level surface because of a personal condition of the worker, then the worker will have the burden of proof to show that a condition of the employment increased the risk of injury. The most common situation where this fourth rule will apply is where a worker falls because of a personal health problem, but ends up being severely injured because the fall was on a hard surface such as a concrete floor.
In the Bluml case the Claimant had begun to have seizures in 2007 and was prescribed anti-seizure medication. In the months leading up to the injury on February 15, 2012 the Claimant had not been taking his anti-seizure medication on a regular basis.
The Claimant was injured on February 15, 2012 while working as a shift manager at a Long John Silvers Restaurant. The Claimant was working behind a customer counter and experienced a seizure. The Claimant fell straight backward onto the ceramic tile floor of the restaurant and struck the back of his head.
The Claimant suffered a serious head injury and underwent several major brain surgeries. The Claimant suffered significant cognitive impairments from the injury especially relating to reading, memory and judgment. The Claimant was able to return to the restaurant business, but now is a cook rather than a manager.
The Claimant brought a workers’ compensation claim that went to trial on January 13, 2016. The Workers’ Compensation judge ruled that based on his interpretation of the existing law that falls on a level surface due to a worker’s personal health condition were never compensable under Iowa workers’ compensation law. The Claimant appealed to the head Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, the District Court, and the Court of Appeals, but each of the appeals resulted in the work comp trial judge being affirmed.
The Claimant made his final available appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court decision of November 16, 2018 reversed the earlier decisions. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the law should no longer be that falls on level surfaces because of a worker’s personal condition are never compensable. Instead, the Supreme Court says that the rule should be that even a fall on a level floor because of a worker’s personal condition should result in the award of workers’ compensation benefits if the injured worker can show that the condition of his employment increased the risk of injury. One common Claimant’s theory in these situations will be that the fall to a hard floor at work resulted in a more serious injury, than if the fall had not been at work. Another potential claimant theory would be where a worker fell, and struck something hard or pointed on the way to the floor such as a desk or a piece of machinery.
This new Iowa law concerning falls on level surfaces is in the minority across the United States. Most States do not allow an injured employee to recover workers’ compensation benefits if they fall on a level surface because of a personal health condition. The Iowa Supreme Court explained that it made its decision in part on the long held Iowa philosophy that workers’ compensation law should be broadly and liberally interpreted in keeping with its humanitarian objective: the benefit of the worker and the worker’s dependents.