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AN EXPLANATION OF IOWA'S NEW WORKERS' COMPENSATION LAWS

Iowa's workers' compensation laws change on July 1, 2017. Many Iowa workers are looking for answers as to how they might be affected by the new laws. 
In the video below Darin explains how Iowans injured on the job may be affected by the changes.
If you are injured at work and want an expert to help you get the medical care and compensation you deserve, call Luneckas Law at 319-294-8777  or click here to tell us about your case .
This is a section-by-section look at changes to workers’ compensation law that will take effect in Iowa on July 1, 2017. Call Luneckas Law at 319-294-8777  or click here to send a message to tell us about your case  if you are injured at work and need to know how you might be affected by the new laws.

Iowa Code §85.16:  This section lists affirmative defenses employers can use to deny compensation for on the job injuries.  One defense is intoxication.  An employer can deny a claim if the employer proves the injured worker was intoxicated at the time of an injury, and the intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury.   The amendments to this section build in a two-tiered presumption that comes into play if the injured worker fails a post-injury alcohol or drug test.  In that event, it is presumed that (1) the injured worker was intoxicated at the time of the injury, and (2) the intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury.  This is a rebuttable presumption which transfers the burden to the employee to disprove either element. 
 
Iowa Code §85.18:  This section prevents employers from creating contracts to avoid their obligation to provide workers’ compensation coverage.  The amendment to this section clarifies that it does not create a private cause of action.  Since this section does not currently create a private cause of action, this may do nothing.  However, the caselaw that recognizes a cause of action for retaliatory discharge in connection with a workers’ compensation claim was premised in part upon the expression of public policy contained in this section.  So, this change will at least set the stage for the argument that there is no longer a retaliatory discharge claim if an injured worker is terminated for pursuing a workers’ compensation claim.
 
Iowa Code §85.23:  This section sets out the requirement that an injured worker provide notice within 90 days of an injury.  The amendment to this section defines the date of injury as the date the “employee knew or should have known that the injury was work related.”  It will be argued that this change amends the common law “discovery rule” in such a way that it removes the requirement that the injured worker recognize the serious nature of an injury before that injury is “discovered.”  However, the premise behind the discovery rule is that it is possible for an injury to “occur” on one day and not be “discovered” until a later date, so it is not clear how successful that argument will be. 
 
Iowa Code §85.26:  This section sets out the applicable statutes of limitation.  The amendment to this section is identical to the amendment to Iowa Code §85.23 in terms of defining when an injury has occurred.  The manner in which these two amendments play out in the courts will likely follow a similar path.
 
Iowa Code §85.33:  This section deals with temporary disability benefits.  As currently written, one subsection allows an employer to suspend temporary benefits if a return to “suitable” work has been offered and refused.  One change that was made allows employers to force traveling employees to return to this state to perform this work.  Other changes require return to work offers to be in writing, and place the same requirements on an injured worker’s decision to decline.
 
Iowa Code §85.34:  This section deals with permanent disability compensation.  It was by far the most significantly eroded by amendments.  Subsection two was amended to provide that the only commencement date for permanent partial disability compensation is that date of maximum medical improvement.  This removes (1) the date of return to work and (2) the date that a return to similar work was medically indicated as potential commencement dates.  This will delay the date of commencement and reduce the amount of accrual interest in a significant number of cases.
Subsection two was also amended to add a new paragraph converting shoulder injuries from unscheduled injuries to scheduled injuries.  It also sets the maximum value for a shoulder injury at 400 weeks.
 
Subsection 2(u) was amended to expressly allow for the consideration of the number of years remaining in the injured worker’s expected working life when determining reduced earning capacity.  This appears to be an effort to overturn the caselaw that says you cannot reduce an award of industrial disability because the worker was closer to retirement age. The amendment does not say how you should consider this factor, so this remains an open question.
 
Subsection 2(u) was also amended to say that a worker with a whole-body injury who returns to work, or who is offered work for which the injured worker would receive the same or similar earnings, shall be compensated based solely on the functional impairment rating and not based on loss of earning capacity.  This essentially eliminates industrial disability compensation for injured workers who have been returned – or offered the ability to return – to substantially similar employment.  It also provides for an unlimited statute of limitations for review-reopening in the event the injured worker is terminated by the employer.
 
Subsection two was amended to include a new subsection (w) limiting evidence regarding the extent of impairment in scheduled member cases to only impairment ratings.  Lay witness testimony and agency expertise are not allowed to be considered in that determination.
Subsection two was amended to include a new subsection (x) that ends permanent partial disability compensation for an injury on the date that an injured worker begins to receive permanent total disability compensation for any injury. 
 
Subsection three was amended to provide that an injured worker who is awarded permanent partial disability benefits cannot also receive permanent and total disability benefits. Subsection three was also amended to provide that an injured worker cannot receive permanent and total disability benefits if that worker is receiving weekly earnings that exceed fifty percent of the statewide average weekly wage.  It also provides that an injured worker cannot receive permanent and total disability benefits and unemployment benefits. 
 
Subsections four and five were amended to change the manner in which credits for an overpayment are allowed.  These changes allow an employer to claim a credit for an overpayment of benefits in the context of a current claim as opposed to waiting to assert a credit in a subsequent claim. 
 
Subsection seven was amended in ways that will remain unclear for years.  This subsection was originally created in an effort to apportion permanent disability compensation where a previous, permanent work injury has been sustained.  The current amendments remove many of the provisions that had started to become settled law and replace them with language that will require many more years of litigation to resolve.  The amendments were intended to scale back the compensation that is owed to workers with successive, work-related disabilities, but what they will actually accomplish remains to be determined.
 
Iowa Code §85.39:  This section governs the rights of both parties to independent medical examinations.  As currently written, an injured worker who refuses to attend an evaluation scheduled by the employer is subject to a suspension of benefits while refusing to attend.  As amended, that injured worker is subject to a forfeiture of the right to compensation.   In addition, an injured worker can only obtain reimbursement for the cost of an independent evaluation if that worker proves that the employer should be liable for the injury at issue.
 
Iowa Code §85.45:  This is the section governing an injured worker’s right to commute an award of benefits and receive a lump sum.  Under current law, an injured worker can obtain a commutation by demonstrating it is in that injured worker’s best interest to obtain a commutation.  As amended, this subsection will only allow for a commutation upon mutual agreement of the parties.  This section was also amended to provide that the parties to a commutation can allow the injured worker to retain the right to future medical care even though the right to weekly benefits is closed.
 
Iowa Code §85.70:  Creates a vocational assistance benefit to injured workers who have sustained a shoulder injury and “cannot return to gainful employment.”  It is not clear who makes final determination as between Iowa Workforce Development in general and the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner in particular.
 
Iowa Code 85.71:  This section deals with injuries occurring outside of this state.  As currently written, an Iowa citizen who works for a company that has a place of business in this state but is injured in a different state is covered by Iowa’s worker’s compensation laws.   As amended, Iowa citizens will only be covered by Iowa’s laws if they are injured in, or regularly work in, this state.
 
Iowa Code §§85.26 & and 86.42:  These sections deal with Judicial Review proceedings.  As amended an appealing party is now going to be allowed an automatic stay if they file a bond in a reasonable amount as fixed by the court.  
 
Iowa Code §86.39:  This section allows the agency to oversee attorney fees.  It was amended by adding a new subsection which specifies that an attorney representing an injured worker can only charge a contingent fee against the benefits that the attorney obtains over and above the benefits voluntarily paid by the employer.  This change should not have any practical effect as this is the manner in which attorneys should have already been charging contingent fees.
 
Iowa Code § 535.3:  This section deals with interest.  Under current law, the interest rate for past due benefits is a flat 10%.  As amended, the interest rate will now be a variable rate based upon the treasury maturity rate plus 2%. 
 
Applicability:  Most provisions apply only to injuries that occur on or after July 1, 2017.  However, the changes to the commutation section apply to applications for commutations filed on or after July 1, 2017 regardless of the date of injury.   

The explanantions above were compliled by Jason Neifert, Chair of the IAJ Workers’ Compensation Section Core Group.

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