Iowa Work Comp Settlements Can Be Increased if the Injury Gets Worse

For our Iowa Workers’ Compensation Lawyer blog, I am going to try to regularly write about important recent Iowa Workers’ Comp cases and other legal developments. As I thought about picking my first “legal update” topic, it struck me that the biggest case of the last decade probably happened a few years ago. Kohlhaas v. Hog Slat, Inc., 777 N.W.2d 387 (Iowa 2009) made an important big change in Iowa Workers’ Compensation law relating to review-reopenings.

A review-reopening is a type of workers’ compensation claim in which a worker who previously settled his claim, or received an award; can later bring a review-reopening action to try to obtain additional compensation based on a worsening of the original work injury.

For a number of years prior to the Kohlhaas decision workers were required to prove two main points in order to succeed in their review-reopening claim:

  • A worsening in the worker’s condition as a result of the original injury.
  • That the worsening was not anticipated at the time of the original settlement or award.

This second requirement that the workers show that the injury had changed in a way not anticipated at the time of the original settlement or award was a major stumbling block. The nature of many injuries is that they will probably get worse with time. Additionally, as part of the original case there were frequently medical records which specifically discussed the likely future problems from the injury. Therefore, as a general matter it was very hard for an injured worker to succeed in a review reopening action.

However, in the Kohlhaas case the Iowa Supreme Court reviewed the underlying statute, and the past review-reopening cases, and ruled that the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner and the lower courts had been misinterpreting the statute and past decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court.

In Kohlhaas the Supreme Court eliminated the requirement that a worker show in his review-reopening action that the worsening of his condition had not been anticipated at the time of the original settlement or award. Therefore, the main requirement under current Iowa review-reopening law is that a worker simply be able to prove that his prior work injury has gotten worse.

The worker can satisfy the requirement of showing that the condition has worsened in several different ways. For a scheduled injury the worker needs to show that the physical disability has increased. For an unscheduled or industrial disability injury the worker can show that either the physical disability has increased, or that the worker’s ability to earn money has decreased because of the injury.

An important point in all review-reopening actions is that they are not an opportunity to re-evaluate or re-litigate the prior settlement or award. The extent of benefits originally awarded will be treated as the starting point of the analysis, and the issue is whether the condition has gotten worse compared to the original settlement or award.

There is a time limit for all review-reopening claims. They must be commenced within three years of the last payment of weekly benefits by the Defendants.