Recent Agency Shoulder Decision: Smidt v. JKB Restaurants, LC

  • Jun 04, 2020

Legal Update by Attorneys Nicholas Cooling & Alison Stewart and Law Clerk Jordan Gehlhaar 

Recently, Deputy Workers’ Compensation Commissioner William Grell issued an arbitration decision defining what constitutes the “shoulder” under Iowa law. One of the main issues was whether the claimant’s work injury should be compensated with permanent disability benefits as a scheduled member injury to the left shoulder, as a bilateral shoulder injury, or as an unscheduled injury. Ultimately, the Iowa statute was construed liberally, for the benefit of the injured worker.

While completing maintenance work as an employee of McDonald’s on April 18, 2018, Claimant Smidt tripped over a box and struck his left side on a steel beam. His injuries included tears of the supraspinatus and infraspinatus tendons, or rotator cuff.

Prior to amendments to the Iowa Workers’ Compensation laws in July of 2017, the shoulder was considered proximal to the arm, and was compensated as industrial disability, an unscheduled injury. Through the 2017 amendments, the Iowa legislature specified that injuries to the “shoulder” should be compensated as scheduled member injuries on a 400-week schedule. However, the deputy concluded, the legislature’s language was ambiguous as to what constitutes the “shoulder.”

Claimant argued that the injuries were proximal to the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint, and should be an unscheduled injury compensated with industrial disability pursuant to Iowa Code Section 85.34(2)(v) (2017). The defendants argued the injury was limited to the left shoulder and should therefore be compensated as a scheduled member injury pursuant to Iowa Code Section 85.34(2)(n) (2017).

The Deputy Commissioner determined that the legislature made a conscious decision to add the “shoulder” as a scheduled member injury, resulting in significantly less compensation to an injured worker. Additionally, it was determined that the legislature likely knew, based on prior decisions, that an injury to the rotator cuff would be proximal to the “shoulder” joint, and therefore compensable to the body as a whole. The deputy reasoned that there is a difference between the “shoulder” and the surrounding anatomic parts (tendons and muscles) that operate the shoulder, which is consistent with Dr. Kuhnlein’s opinion in the case, as well as prior Commissioner’s findings in Nazarenus v. Oscar Mayer & Co. in 2008.

Mr. Smidt was involuntarily terminated at the change of management and later found employment as a part-time truck driver. Considering the traditional industrial disability factors, the deputy made an award of 40% industrial disability.

Overall, these findings are consistent with those in Chavez v. MS Technology, LLC, File No. 5066270 (Feb. 5, 2020) and Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc., File No. 5061883 (Feb. 28, 2020) – two similar decisions since the 2017 amendment. In effect, this decision indicates the agency’s progression since the 2017 amendments, toward body as a whole classification when injury of the shoulder is involved. Under the current case law, any time the injury extends into the proximal portion of the shoulder joint, we can expect the agency to find a body as a whole injury, where industrial disability analysis may be appropriate. However, as this decision suggests, additional guidance in the form of statutory language and parameters of what constitutes “shoulder,” is necessary and Peddicord Wharton will continue to monitor the case law as this issue continues to develop.

 


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