Employer Obligated to Compensate Injury Irrespective of Whether Condition Would be Harmful to the Average Employee

by | Jun 4, 2015

Last month, in United Heartland, Inc. v. Brown, No. 14-1070, 2015 Iowa Ct. App. Lexis 321 (Apr. 8, 2015), the Court of Appeals of Iowa found that a school district was obligated to pay workers’ compensation benefits to a teacher who suffered respiratory difficulties as a result of poor air quality in her school building.  In United Heartland, Claimant was a teacher for Camanche elementary school for 22 years and suffered progressively worse respiratory problems over the course of her employment. Her symptoms always increased over the course of the school year and subsided when she was away from the school building over the summer months. Claimant was eventually diagnosed with occupational environmental lung disease, hyper-reactive airways, and shortness of breath. The school district sought an expert opinion regarding the environmental conditions at the school, and the expert found the school air was not grossly contaminated. The school district argued that because the dust, mold, and moisture in the school building were not greater than anywhere else, Claimant’s injuries could not have arisen out of her employment.

Initially, in an Arbitration Decision, the Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner found Claimant’s injuries arose out of her employment. In an appeal, Deputy Commissioner Larry Walshire, acting by designation of the commissioner, affirmed the arbitration decision. The school district then sought judicial review, the district court affirmed the agency’s decision that Brown suffered a compensable injury arising out of her employment with the school district. The school district then challenged the judicial review ruling.

The Court of Appeals of Iowa agreed with the decision of the district court. The Court held that in order to arise out of her employment, the injury must be a “natural incident” of the work or, in other words, “a rational consequence of the hazard connected with the employment.” The school district argued that the claimant’s condition was not caused by harmful conditions in the building, because there was no evidence the dust, mold and moisture in the building was greater than anywhere else, the injury cannot be said to have arisen out of her employment. However, the Court focused on the fact that employer take employees as they find them at the time of employment. “The fact that air quality tests found conditions at the school that would not be hazardous for most humans is irrelevant,” the air quality tests reflected substances in the school that may afflict a susceptible individual. There was ample evidence to support a finding that the Claimant’s injuries were caused by a condition, element or substance in the workplace.

This case illustrates that conditions in the workplace might not be harmful to the average worker, but may still create a compensable injury. This is a further reminder that the employer takes the employee as they find them, the fact something would not harm most humans is irrelevant.

For more information, please contact any Baylor Evnen workers’ compensation attorney at 402-475-1075.