Permanent Total Disability in Iowa Workers’ Compensation

Under Iowa law if a worker has a severe enough injury they are entitled to receive what is called permanent total disability benefits. If a worker receives an award for permanent total disability benefits this means they are entitled to receive weekly benefits until they die. There is no limit to the number of weeks they can receive, and the payments do not stop when a worker turns 65 or any other age.

In order to receive a permanent total disability award the worker has to have an industrial disability type injury. This generally means an injury to the neck, shoulders, back, hips, or a mental injury. (See here for a longer explanation of the difference between scheduled injuries and industrial disability type injuries).

In many ways, the analysis for whether a worker qualifies for a permanent total disability is the same as how the extent of damages are looked at in a regular industrial disability case. The Workers’ Compensation Judge will consider the reduction in the worker’s earning capacity, as well as the worker’s age, education, qualifications, experience, motivation, severity of injury, site of the injury, work restrictions, whether or not the employer kept the worker on as an employee, and whether the worker can do the type of work they have done during their career. (See here for a longer explanation of how industrial disability injuries are assessed and analyzed under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation system).

Many of the Workers’ Compensation Judges use some variation of the following standard to decide whether the severity of the injury is bad enough that the worker should be given permanent total disability:

1. The injury must completely disable the worker from performing the work that their experience, training, education, intelligence and physical capabilities would otherwise permit the employee to perform.

2. Total disability for Iowa workers’ comp purposes does not mean that the worker is absolutely helpless.

3. The fact that the injured employee could perform some work despite their physical and educational limitations does not rule out a finding of permanent total disability.

Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Pease
, 807 N.W.2d 839 (Iowa 2011)
is a fairly recent Iowa Supreme Court case that discusses the twists and turns of a somewhat complicated case and eventually decides that the permanent total disability award that had been entered by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner was correct. Obviously every case is quite different, but this is a good example of the kinds of evidence and arguments each sides present in a potential permanent total disability case. The claimant worked with disabled children in the school district and transported them to various locations in the community in a school van. The Claimant’s problem started out with a right ankle injury. A worker would generally not be entitled to permanent total disability from an ankle injury. However, the ankle injury in turn caused back problems and depression that created the possibility of a permanent total disability award. The case discusses at length the competing reports of the medical and vocational experts that provided evidence for each side. (See here for a longer explanation of the importance of good expert medical reports, and see here for a longer explanation of the importance of vocational rehabilitation reports).

The Supreme Court found that there was evidence supporting the Claimant’s argument that she was permanently and totally disabled, and the defense argument that her injuries were not that severe. However, the Court accepted the conclusion of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner that it was a permanent total disability case. (See here for an explanation of the appeal process in Iowa Workers’ Compensation cases, and the importance of the factual conclusions of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner).

An important factor in the case was that the school district had terminated Ms. Pease because they found that she could not perform her duties because of her injuries. Every workers’ compensation case involving a termination does not lead to a permanent total disability award. However, the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner and the Iowa Courts do consistently give higher damages to injured workers who are terminated from their jobs.