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Charles Coffey v. Mid Seven Transportation Company and Great West Casualty Company, Supreme Court of Iowa No. 11-1106
The claimant, Charles Coffey, worked for the Defendant employer, Mid Seven Transportation Company, as an over the road trucker. On February 8, 1994, the Claimant fell on an icy parking lot while working in Missouri. His left leg and foot were then run over by an eighteen wheel tractor-trailer. He sustained a medial malleolar fracture and suffered from compartment syndrome in the leg.
The Claimant was motivated to begin working again, but was unable to return to full time employment. He was placed at maximum medical improvement in August 1994 following several surgeries. The Claimant also suffers from post polio syndrome which causes whole body fatigue, weakness, pain and cramping in the legs, pelvis and lower back.
The Claimant had been found by physicians to be incapable of returning to work as a truck driver. He did work part time as a substitute school bus driver in 1996, 1997 and 1998, however the most he ever earned was $7,800 per year, and he eventually terminated that employment due to complications with his right shoulder. He also was awarded social security disability benefits starting in December 1997. He receives approximately $1,192 per month.
Prior to filing his workers’ compensation claim, the Claimant settled his third party claim for $275,000 on December 22, 1997. After attorneys fees and reimbursement to the employer/insurer, the Claimant pocketed $134,786.95. The Claimant instituted his workers’ compensation action in January of 1998 alleging injury to the back, leg and head as well as PPS. The employer admitted the work injury occurred on the date set forth in the petition.
Prior to arbitration, the employer had made workers’ compensation payments to the Claimant of $70,783.19 which included payment for healing period, permanent partial disability, medical expenses and mileage. Also before arbitration, the Claimant and his wife entered into another third party settlement for $100,000. His wife was allocated $60,000 of the settlement for loss of consortium. The Claimant received $24,634.14 after payment of legal fees.
At arbitration on September 5, 2002, the deputy found the Claimant was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits and that his injury caused his PPS, which resulted in a 75% industrial disability. However, it was found that the Claimant’s pulmonary, cardiac, vascular, thyroid problems, bladder cancer, spinal and shoulder issues were not work related.
The employer was ordered to pay 375 weeks of permanent partial disability benefitsat the benefit rate of $472.18 which had been being underpaid at the rate of $392.33. The employer was ordered to satisfy the underpayment by paying $79.85 per week. The employer was also ordered to pay certain disputed medical expenses, including the cost of travel for PPS care.
The decision of the deputy was affirmed on intra-agency appeal, as well as on appeal to the district court and court of appeals. Following the denial of further review, counsel for the employer wrote to the Claimant’s attorney stating that the Claimant’s third party recoveries covered the Claimant’s workers’ compensation claim, but asked whether the Claimant’s attorney claimed any further amounts were due on the award. The Claimant’s attorney responded indicating at lease one third of the amount awarded was due.
The employer’s attorney then responded that they had calculated the amount owed under the agency’s decision to be $154,719.26, however it appears this did not take into account mileage, medical payments or interested owed. It was stated that because the third party statements exceeded the calculated amount, the employer contended all they owed was a payment of the attorney fees for the claimant’s attorney in establishing their credit. This amount was deemed to be $51,573.09, which was paid to the Claimant and his attorney. Claimant’s attorney corresponded back indicating that he believed Claimant was owed more than the calculation done by the employer’s attorney.
The Claimant then filed a review reopening petition on April 2, 2008 seeking additional disability benefits, reimbursement for medical expenses and an order requiring the employer to pay the amount still due under the agency decision as well as a calculation of the credit to which they were owed. On hearing, the deputy found the claim for additional benefits was untimely under the statute of limitations. It was determined the date that the statute began to run was the date of the intra-agency appeal decision, March 23, 2004. The deputy however did award the payment of the medical expenses sought by Claimant, but the deputy did not determine the amount still due under the award, if any, or the amount of credit to which the employer was entitled. The deputy found the payment of $51,573.09 made by the employer was not intended as benefits but rather as a reimbursement of the Claimant’s attorneys in achieving third party settlements.
On intra agency appeal, the Commissioner upheld the finding that the claim for benefits was untimely. However, he reversed the finding that the employer should pay the medical expenses sought by the Claimant as he did not believe they were proved to be related to the work injury. He also affirmed the decision of the deputy that no order was need compelling the employer to make payment as the Claimant could seek a judgment. The decision was then appealed to and affirmed by the district court.
On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court stated that in regards to the issue of the statute of limitations, such would be reviewed for errors at law as the legislature did not clearly vest the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner with the authority to interpret the statute. The issue as to whether the medical expenses were related to the Claimant’s work injury would be reviewed under the substantial evidence standard.
The Court took up the issue of the statute of limitations and indicated that there was no disagreement between the parties that the review reopening petition must be filed within three years from the date of the last payment of weekly benefits. The employer argued that the statute began to run from the date the commissioner issued the arbitration award, whereas the Claimant challenged the argument on two grounds; 1) that the payment of $51,573.09 constituted payment of weekly benefits, and 2) the statute did not begin to run until the Court denied further review of the arbitration decision.
The Court determined that the commissioner did not determine whether any further benefits were owed under the award, and as such, it could not be determined by the court whether or not the credit of the third party settlements covered all the weekly benefits under the award. The Court held that the Commissioner must first decided whether any further benefits were owed, as the Claimant contended, before determining what the last date of payment of weekly benefits was. The Court then remanded the issue to the Commissioner for a determination whether benefits were still owed. And following the decision of that issue, the Commissioner must then determine whether the last installment of weekly benefits has been paid and on what date if that has occurred.
The Court went on to state that if it is determined that the employer paid all weekly benefits prior to the arbitration award via the credit afforded to it by the third party settlements, the date the statute began to run must still be determined. The Court rejected the Claimant’s argument that the payment of $51,573.09 was payment of weekly benefits. This was based on the logic that 1) the obligation to pay weekly benefits would have already been completely fulfilled prior to the payment, and 2) the Code makes clear that the payment of attorneys fees to the injured party’s attorney for amounts recovered in third party settlements is not considered payment of weekly benefits.
The Court then held that the statute is not tolled pending final appellate review of the arbitration award. Rather, in a situation where the obligation to pay benefits is satisfied before the entering of an arbitration award, the statute begins to run when the award is entered.
Finally, the Court took up the issue of the payment of medical expenses and determined that based upon the review of the record, substantial evidence supported the Commissioner’s finding that the Claimant had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the sought after medical expenses were related to the work injury. The Court then remanded the case as to the statute of limitations issue, but affirmed the finding in regards to payment of medical expenses.
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