The Court of Appeals of Iowa Appears to Increase Employers’ Liability Even in Cases of Purely Idiopathic Falls.

by | Jun 4, 2013

Recently, in AARP v. Whitacre, the Court of Appeals of Iowa found an employer liable for a workers’ compensation claim even when the parties admitted that the fall leading to the Claimant’s injury arose out of an entirely personal and idiopathic condition. In Whitacre, the Claimant was a 79 year old part-time janitor. Claimant was on a coffee break with one of his supervisors when he began to choke. At that time, he stood up to get a drink of water, stumbled, and hit the corner of his supervisor’s desk and the concrete wall. Claimant landed head first on the floor. There was no evidence that he stumbled on anything. His resultant injuries were lacerations to his head and face and a blood clot in his brain.

While acknowledging that “generally injuries resulting from risks personal to a Claimant are not compensable,” the Court of Appeals of Iowa reasoned that where “the employment contributes to the risk or aggravates the injury… we have abandoned any requirement that the employment subject the employee to a risk or hazard that is greater than that faced by the general public.” The Court of Appeals of Iowa noted that although work conditions did not cause the Claimant to fall and blackout, work conditions in the form of the concrete wall “definitely worsened the effects of the fall.” The employer argued that there was no dangerous condition created by the employment and that a wall, standing alone, was not a risk that could aggravate an injury. However, the Court of Appeals of Iowa noted that the employee did not have to be placed in a dangerous position, but merely “a position that aggravates the effects of an idiopathic fall.” The Court of Appeals of Iowa specifically disavowed the “increased risk doctrine” and stated that the analysis is whether the nature of the employment exposes the employee to the risk of such an injury.

The rationale behind the Court of Appeals of Iowa’s decision is troubling at best. The majority of the previous cases finding injuries resulting from idiopathic falls dealt with situations where Claimants were in positions of risk such as ladders, climbing, or operating around heavy machinery. In this case, the Court of Appeals of Iowa essentially determined that when Claimant lost consciousness due to a personal condition and fell in a standard office resulting in him striking his head on the wall, his head injury was compensable. Given the Court of Appeals of Iowa’s decision in Whitacre, and the fact that most injuries resulting from idiopathic falls typically arise from contact with the ground, it begs the question when an injury arising out of a purely personal condition will not be found to be work related.

This decision documents the importance of taking immediate steps subsequent to any injury occurring in the work place to document the environment where the injury allegedly occurred and/or obtain witness statements. Given the Court of Appeals of Iowa’s decision in this matter, documentation regarding the surrounding environment will be key.

If you have any questions regarding defenses based on personal/idiopathic conditions under Iowa Workers’ Compensation Law, please  contact attorney Paul Barta at (402) 475-1075 or