In 2017 the Iowa Legislature changed Iowa's Workers’ Compensation laws. One of the significant changes was the classification of a shoulder as a "scheduled" body part instead of “body-as-a-whole”.
If that elicits a “huh?” and a blank stare on your part, I don’t blame you, but bear with me because it was a meaningful change.
(Click here for an earlier article with a more in-depth explanation of the 2017 changes.)
If a body part is scheduled, it means it’s on a list with a maximum amount of compensation that can be awarded in the event of an on-the-job injury to that particular body part . . . whereas body-as-a-whole injuries aren’t subject to a pre-set limit.
The problem was that the legislature didn’t specifically define “shoulder." At first glance it might seem obvious what a shoulder is, but it’s more complicated than that.
In one of the first shoulder cases evaluated by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission interpreting the new statute (Chavez v. MS Technology, LLC), my daughter Erin Tucker argued that the legislature’s ambiguity in drafting the new statute meant that rotator cuff injuries should not be limited because they do not fall within the general and previously-understood definition of shoulder: the joint between the arm and the trunk of the body.
The Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner agreed and held that the injured worker was not limited to the scheduled amount of benefits because her injury was to her body as a whole, and only an injury to the shoulder joint itself would be governed by the scheduled, and much more limited, amount of benefits.
It was the first case deciding this issue in favor of the injured worker.
As expected, the insurance company appealed this finding. The Iowa Association of Business and Industry filed a brief in support of the insurance company’s position.
On September 30, 2020 the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, Joseph Cortese, reversed the lower judge’s decision and concluded that the injury was, in fact, a “shoulder” injury, limiting the worker to far less benefits; subsequent cases have gone the same way.
This issue is expected to come before the Iowa Supreme Court in the near future. In the meantime, it's an area of contention that your attorney needs to be thoroughly familiar with. The reality is that shoulder injuries are currently awarded fewer benefits than before the law change, but carefully-crafted arguments taking into account the new law’s ambiguities can result in maximizing the amount injured workers recover.