by | Mar 10, 2022

The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner recently decided an appeal in Carmer v. Nordstrom, Inc. that resolved a split of deputy commissioners as to how to compensate an employee who sustains bilateral shoulder injuries from a single accident. Our blog post for the lower deputy commissioner’s decision in this case can be found here.

In Carmer, the claimant injured both of her shoulders in one work-related accident. Her employer stipulated that her injuries were compensable. However, the parties were unable to agree on how the two shoulder injuries should be compensated under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act, which in 2017 made a shoulder injury a scheduled member injury after years of the same being considered an injury to the body as a whole. Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(n).

The claimant argued that she was entitled to be compensated industrially under the catch-all provision of Section 85.34(2)(v) for all injuries not otherwise detailed in the schedule. In response, the employer argued that the claimant’s injuries should be compensated independently under Section 85.34(2)(n), meaning that the impairment to the right shoulder would be assessed against 400 weeks, and the impairment to the left shoulder would be independently assessed against its own 400 weeks. Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(n).

 The deputy commissioner ultimately agreed with claimant and found that the claimant’s injuries were scheduled member injuries and did not extend to the claimant’s body as a whole. The deputy commissioner did find, however, that the claimant’s injuries should be compensated industrially under Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(v) because of legislative intent to have bilateral shoulder injuries fall under the catch-all provision of § 85.34(2)(v) and assessed for industrial disability, compensated against 500 weeks.

The employer appealed the deputy’s decision to the Commissioner.

On appeal, the employer argued that the claimant was not entitled to industrial disability under section 85.34(2)(v) because the two shoulders should have been compensated only as separate scheduled member injuries under section 85.34(2)(n).

The Commissioner noted the recent changes to Iowa Code Chapter 85 that re-categorized a shoulder injury from an unscheduled injury (and thus compensated as an industrial disability basis) to a scheduled member injury. The Commissioner also stated, however, that the Legislature did not add the shoulder to the list of scheduled members that can be compensated against 500 weeks when two members are injured in the same accident. See Iowa Code § 85.34(2)(t). That section provides “that the loss of both arms, or both hands, or both feet, or both legs, or both eyes, or any two thereof, caused by a single accident” shall be compensated against 500 weeks and assessed for functional loss alone.

The Commissioner reasoned that the Legislature therefore left two options for bilateral shoulder injuries: either each shoulder is compensable separately on a 400-week basis under section 85.34(2)(n), or the shoulders are compensated industrially pursuant to the “catch-all” provision in section 85.34(2)(v).

 The Commissioner decided that bilateral shoulder injuries fall under the “catch-all” provision in section 85.34(2)(v) and assessed for industrial disability compensated against 500 weeks. As section 85.34(2)(n) provides that compensation shall be paid for 400 weeks “[f]or the loss of a shoulder,” the Commissioner held that section only applies to a single shoulder injury.

The Commissioner concluded by stating that if the Legislature intended for bilateral shoulder injuries occurring a single accident to be compensated separately on two 400 week schedules, it could have simply added “shoulder” to the list of members in  section 85.34(2)(t). Because it did not do so, the Commissioner found that the Legislature intended for those injuries to be compensated industrially per the “catch-all” provision in section 85.34(2)(v).

This decision resolves a split among deputy commissioners and clarifies how bilateral shoulder injuries should be compensated under Iowa law. The Commissioner’s decision, however, appears to have been appealed to the District Court of Polk County. Until this case is finally resolved, this area of law remains largely unsettled.

This post was drafted by Tyler Rademacher, a law clerk at Baylor Evnen. If you have questions regarding compensation for shoulder injuries in Iowa, please call Paul Barta or Micah Hawker-Boehnke at 402-475-1075.