Iowa High Court Says Discovery Rule Applies to Single Trauma Injuries

In Baker v. Bridgestone/Firestone, 2015 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 103 (Dec. 18, 2015), the Supreme Court of Iowa recently held that the discovery rule in workers’ compensation law applies not only to cumulative injuries; it can also apply to injuries arising from a singular event. As readers recall, the “discovery rule” generally provides that the statute of limitations does not begin to run on a claim until the point that the claimant knows—or, with reasonable diligence, should know—the work-related nature of his or her injury. An earlier Iowa commissioner’s appeal decision in the case determined that the discovery rule was “categorically inapplicable” to workers’ compensation claims arising out of a singular event [emphasis added]. The Iowa high Court’s decision means that the two-year statute of limitations imposed by Iowa Code § 85.26 is not a bright-line rule in many cases where the initial injury appears relatively minor in nature and later progresses to cause disability. As noted below, however, the Court’s decision may be a Pyrrhic victory for this particular claimant.

Background

Bruce Baker worked as a maintenance mechanic in his employer’s hoist department. He felt pain in his lower back when he fell to the plant’s floor while working. He immediately reported the incident to his supervisor, but resumed work. He was examined two days later by the plant physician, who instructed Baker to use acetaminophen and ice for his discomfort. The doctor told him to “work at his own pace.” Baker testified–and the commissioner found–that he did not foresee the incident having a lasting impact on his ability to perform the functions of his position.

Unfortunately, the pain did not subside. He saw company physicians who continued to say he should treat his pain with over-the-counter analgesics, ice, and light physical therapy. He continued to see the company physician for more than four months, at which point the doctor ordered x-rays and an MRI. The MRI study revealed Baker had mild lumbar degenerative changes consistent with normal wear and tear. Although Baker reported ongoing low back pain, the company doctor instructed Baker to work at regular duty. The doctor did not assign any lifting or other specific restrictions on Baker’s exertion.

Some seven months after the initial incident, Baker was transferred to a pain management specialist who administered injections for Baker’s pain and prescribed other medications, including Hydrocodone, Tizanidine, and Tramadol. Baker testified that by this time he had realized his back injury would affect his job performance and his life in general.

On the second anniversary of the injury, the employer notified Baker that it would no longer pay for his medical care, as it believed the two-year statute of limitations for workers’ compensation benefits had expired. Approximately one month later, Baker filed two petitions seeking benefits for his back injury. One petition alleged an injury date of May 23, 2010; the other petition alleged a cumulative injury arising on June 19, 2012.

Deputy Commissioner’s Decision

The deputy commissioner found Baker knew or should have known his condition was serious before June 20, 2010 because (1) he reported the injury; (2) he sought medical treatment by visiting the company physician on May 25; (3) that physician imposed “work restrictions” by instructing Baker to work at his own pace; (4) Baker underwent some physical therapy; and (5) Baker testified his symptoms never went away after May 23, 2010. However, the deputy also found “no quarrel” with Baker’s testimony that he did not anticipate permanent adverse impact on his employment until after June 20, 2010. Ultimately, the deputy concluded these facts actually did not matter because the discovery rule only applied to cumulative injuries and Baker did not prove a cumulative injury. The commissioner’s appeal decision affirmed the deputy commissioner in relevant part. The appeal decision acknowledged that “traumatic injuries commonly fail to be instantly disabling or otherwise have an immediate significant impact on employment,” but nonetheless determined that the discovery rule was “categorically inapplicable” to workers’ compensation claims arising out of a singular event [emphasis added].

Workers’ Compensation is a “System”—Not a “Contest”

The Supreme Court disagreed. Quoting extensively from Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 1.03[7], the Court initially stressed the difference between tort litigation and workers’ compensation, noting that the former is “ an adversary contest to right a wrong between the contestants,” whereas workers’ compensation is “a system, not a contest, to supply security to injured workers ….” The Court added: “This characterization is just as true today as it was when Iowa first established its workers’ compensation system” [p. 12 of Court’s original opinion].

With that characterization in mind, the Court said that in cases alleging injuries arising from a singular event, the agency must apply the discovery rule in deciding whether the limitation period commenced on the date of the singular event or at some later time. The Court concluded that the fact an initial accident was traumatic did not necessarily provide immediate notice of seriousness or compensability.

Discovery Rule Promotes Cooperative Relationship Between Employer and Claimant

The Court reiterated that claimants and employers had a unique cooperative relationship in the workers’ compensation context that had no counterpart in the tort arena. According to the Court, the discovery rule promotes that relationship because it decreases the likelihood that workers’ compensation proceedings will be filed before the nature, seriousness, and probable compensability of claims are known—especially during periods when employers are interacting cooperatively with claimants and providing them with appropriate medical services in the aftermath of a work-related injury that is not perceived as serious.

Pyrrhic Victory for Claimant?

Baker may well have only a Pyrrhic victory. Sure, the Court remanded the case to the district court with instructions to remand the matter back to the commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. As noted above, however, the deputy commission has already made a factual finding that Baker should have known the work-related nature of his injuries more than two years prior to the time he filed his claim. That is to say that while the commissioner and the deputy commissioner must refrain from their arbitrary position that the discovery rule can never apply to single trauma events, Baker’s claim may still not have been timely filed.

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