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What is a “shoulder” injury under Iowa Workers’ Compensation law?

By: Troy Howell

As noted in a prior blog entry, on March 30, 2017, then Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed House File 518 into law which contained many amendments to the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act.  These changes went into effect on July 1, 2017.  One change was that any “shoulder” injury occurring on or after July 1, 2017 would no longer be considered a whole person injury but rather would now be considered a scheduled member injury.  Scheduled member injuries have less monetary value than whole person injuries given whole person injuries, unlike scheduled member injuries, are subject to a heightened industrial disability (loss of earning capacity) analysis.

Iowa’s Workers’ Compensation Act does not define what constitutes the “shoulder” or a “shoulder” injury.  While the definition of “shoulder” might seem like common sense, recent decisions issued by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission challenge conventional wisdom as to what constitutes a “shoulder” injury.  Without a guiding definition contained within the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act, at least four recent arbitration decisions issued by three different deputy commissioners of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission have narrowly construed the “shoulder” to include only the glenohumeral joint and those parts of the shoulder structure that are distal (on the arm side of the body).  See Smidt v. JKB Restaurants, LC and Accident Fund Nat. Ins. Co., 2020 WL 2394473 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Com’n 2020)(rotator cuff tears involving the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons); DeLeon v. Kingdom Cargo, LLC, 2020 WL 2394458 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Com’n 2020)(type 3 AC joint separation); Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc. and Safety Nat. Cas. Corp., 2020 WL 1183480 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Com’n 2020)(infraspinatus injury); Chavez v. MS Technology, LLC and Westfield Ins. Co., 2020 WL 1183526 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Com’n 2020)(rotator cuff tear involving the supraspinatus, infraspinatus and subscapularis tendons).  These four decisions conclude that injuries to the parts of the shoulder structure that are proximal (on the torso side of the body) do not constitute “shoulder” injuries and therefore remain whole person injuries subject to the industrial disability (loss of earning capacity) analysis rather than scheduled member injuries.

One potential practical impact of these decisions is that a rotator cuff tear-commonly understood by non-lawyers, lawyers and physicians alike as a shoulder injury and perhaps the quintessential shoulder injury-will not be considered a “shoulder” injury under Iowa workers’ compensation law given the rotator cuff is proximal to the glenohumeral joint.  Therefore, a rotator cuff tear will remain a whole person injury subject to the industrial disability analysis.  Legitimate questions have been raised by legal practitioners regarding whether such a result was intended by the Iowa legislature when it passed the 2017 amendment to Iowa’s Workers’ Compensation Act reducing a “shoulder” injury to a scheduled member injury.  The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner will weigh-in on the issue sometime in the near future but it is expected that the issue will ultimately be decided by the Iowa Supreme Court.  We will continue to monitor the issue as it winds through the legal system and keep you updated.

Troy practices in Lane & Waterman’s Labor & Employment practice group focusing primarily on the defense of workers’ compensation claims in both Iowa and Illinois.