by | Dec 8, 2021

Recently, a Deputy Commissioner caused quite the stir by breaking with the prior consensus among the Commission about how to compensate an employee who sustains bilateral shoulder injuries from a single accident.

In Carmer v. Nordstrom, Inc., 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. As injuries to both shoulders caused by one accident were not specifically addressed in the schedule, the claimant asserted that she should be compensated as though she had sustained a “body as a whole” injury.

The employer disagreed, arguing 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).

In support of that position, the employer cited two decisions of other Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioners: Manuel v. Garnett Publishing and Lund v. Mercy Medical Center. In each of those cases, the Deputy determined that bilateral shoulder injuries should each have their own assessment against 400 weeks and not be combined in any way.

When the Iowa Legislature made a shoulder injury a schedule member injury in 2017, the legislature did not include shoulder injuries in Section 85.34(2)(t). Section 85.34(2)(t) 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 Deputy Commissioner in Carmer ultimately agreed with the claimant, breaking with the previous trend amongst the Deputies at the Commission.

The Deputy observed that a bilateral shoulder injury could not fall under Section 85.34(2)(t) since there was no express mention of shoulders in the statute. The Deputy also found that the Legislative intent behind shoulder injuries was to have bilateral cases fall under the catch-all provision of Section 85.34(2)(v) and assessed for industrial disability, compensated against 500 weeks.

Claimants in Iowa are quick to cite the Carmer decision to argue that bilateral shoulder injuries are entitled to an assessment of industrial loss. However, this is not settled law. As we have seen with other issues related to the recent schedule of shoulder injuries, the debate will likely have to go before the Commissioner himself before there is any clear guidance. For now, how to compensate an employee who has sustained a bilateral shoulder injury is open to debate in Iowa.

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