State News : Iowa

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Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and American Home Assurance Corp. AIG v. Larry Plummer, Court of Appeals of Iowa, No. 14-0417

The Claimant, Larry Plummer, alleges two separate injuries while working at Wal-Mart. The first injury occurred on January 21, 2010. The Claimant worked the third shift, which ended at 6 a.m. After he completed the shift, he clocked out and spent approximately thirty minutes shopping. On his way out, he and a coworker assisted a customer. While providing the assistance, the Claimant slipped and fell. He completed an incident report designated for customers rather than employees. The Claimant sought workers’ compensation benefits for an injury to his back.

A deputy workers’ compensation commissioner concluded the injury did not arise out of and in the course of employment because, at the time he fell, the Claimant was no longer on the clock. On intra-agency appeal, the commissioner reversed the decision and ordered Wal-Mart to cover the medical expenses associated with the Claimant’s physician’s visit. Wal-Mart petitioned for judicial review. The district court affirmed the agency decision and this appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals found that the commissioner’s determination that the “in the course of” requirement was satisfied was not irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable, even though there was a lapse of time between the Claimant’s completion of his shift and the fall. The Court noted that the Iowa Supreme Court has stated, “[w]hat constitutes a reasonable amount of time depends ‘not only on the length of time involved but also on the circumstances occasioning the interval and the nature of the employee’s activity.’” Bailey v. Batchelder, 576 N.W.2d 334, 340 (Iowa 1998) (citingCarter v. Volunteer Apparel, Inc., 833 S.W.2d 492, 494 (Tenn. 1992)).  The lapse of time between the Claimant’s completion of his shift and the fall was only thirty minutes, and the Claimant had essentially acted as an employee when he stopped to assist the customer.

The second alleged injury occurred on July 17, 2010 when the Claimant was attempting to remove a broken pad on a floor-scrubber and felt a pop in his back and sudden pain in his left and right legs. Wal-Mart contends the commissioner failed to consider the deputy commissioner’s findings that the Claimant and his expert witness were not credible. The Court of Appeals found that the commissioner’s findings were supported by substantial evidence. The commissioner had acknowledged the credibility issues but rejected the deputy commissioner’s “overly negative” view of the Claimant and instead adopted the opinion of the Claimant’s expert because of the expert’s knowledge of the Claimant’s prior medical history.

Wal-Mart also contends that the Court should reverse the award of sanctions against Wal-Mart and its counsel because the Claimant failed to preserve this issue for appeal and because the commissioner's ruling violates Iowa law and Agency precedent. Wal-Mart raised an error preservation concern based on the Claimant’s failure to raise the sanctions issue before the deputy commissioner. The Court of Appeals found that the commissioner has authority to impose sanctions whether or not a deputy commissioner has previously ruled on the issue. The commissioner had concluded Wal-Mart failed to comply with the deputy commissioner’s order for treatment and evaluation. The Court of Appeals found that the commissioner did not abuse its discretion in imposing sanctions on Wal-Mart and its counsel. 

Call Mark Bosscher or Lee Hook with any questions @ 515-243-2100.  We’d be happy to help, whether it be a quick or a complex issue!