State News : Iowa

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Carl A. Nelson & Company and Zurich North American Ins. Co., v. Byran Sloan, Court of Appeals of Iowa, No. 15-0325

At the agency level, the parties stipulated Claimant, Byran Sloan, sustained an injury to his back in the course and scope of his employment on August 15, 2011, while lifting concrete forms out of a trench. Claimant was treated for what was described as a back strain, and he was returned to full-duty work with no restrictions on August 24, 2011. The dispute in this case centered on what effect an incident that occurred on October 30, 2011, had on that stipulated work injury.

On October 30, 2011, Claimant was assisting a friend move some go-kart frames into a trailer. When Claimant tried to slide a frame that had been placed on the trailer by a bobcat, he felt a sudden onset of pain and numbness in his back and legs. Claimant described the pain as being similar to what he experienced when the initial injury occurred. When conservative treatment for this injury failed, Claimant underwent back surgery and was subsequently released at maximum medical improvement on January 14, 2013. 

The workers’ compensation case was tried before a deputy commissioner on April 9, 2013. The deputy denied Claimant’s claim after determining the go-kart incident was an intervening and superseding cause of Claimant’s injury. The deputy further concluded, “There were no competent medical opinions tying [Claimant’s] original work injury to his ongoing back problems.”

 Claimant appealed to the commissioner, who reversed the deputy’s conclusion, finding “the greater weight of evidence supports the finding that claimant’s work injury was a proximate and natural cause of the disability he suffered from at the time of the arbitration hearing.” While the commissioner noted the evidence was “quite compelling” that the go-kart incident substantially worsened or aggravated Claimant’s condition, it did not amount to an intervening or superseding cause because Claimant “was simply engaged in an ordinary activity of daily living, namely helping a friend transport items on a trailer he owned” and not engaged in conduct that was “contrary to any express or implied duty owed to his employer following his work injury.” The commissioner also held the Employer is responsible for the medical treatment Claimant received following the go-kart incident. The bills that were paid by Claimant’s private health insurance “shall be reimbursed directly to [Claimant] as the Iowa Supreme Court has mandated in Ruud.” SeeMidwest Ambulance Serv. v. Ruud, 754 N.W.2d 860, 867–68 (Iowa 2008).

 The Employer filed for judicial review with the district court, who affirmed the agency’s causation opinion, finding, “the commissioner’s determination is clearly supported by substantial evidence in the record.” The court likewise affirmed the agency’s analysis of the intervening and superseding cause, concluding “there is really no point in the court reiterating that discussion when the court has no disagreement either with the commissioner’s judgment regarding the law or his application of the law to the facts.” However, the court modified the agency’s decision with respect to the payment of medical bills that had been covered by Claimant’s private health insurer. The court determined the agency misinterpreted the Supreme Court’s holding in Ruud as mandating direct reimbursement to Claimant. Instead, the district court held the Employer is to either (1) directly reimburse Claimant for the expenses approved by the commissioner as part of Claimant’s claim that were paid by the health insurer; or (2) reimburse the insurer for such amounts and pay any remaining amounts of any such expenses not paid by the health insurer directly to the provider.

 From this ruling the Employer appealed the causation ruling, and Claimant cross-appealed the ruling on the reimbursement of medical expenses paid by his private health insurer.

 The Court of Appeals agrees with the district court that substantial evidence supports the agency’s causation finding. The Court noted that the commissioner reviewed the medical opinions on the issue of causation and determined, of the three experts who offered opinions on causation, the opinion of Kenneth Bussey, M.D., was most persuasive. The commissioner credited Claimant’s testimony and concluded there was “simply no reasonable basis to disbelieve claimant’s uncontroverted, sworn testimony that he was still suffering from back and leg pain (radiculopathy) when he was released” back to work.

 The Court also agreed with the district court that the agency did not misinterpret the law with respect to intervening and superseding cause. The commissioner held the go-kart incident was a direct and natural result of the August 15, 2011 work injury based on the opinion of Dr. Bussey. The action of Claimant was not considered “negligent” so as to break the chain of causation because Claimant’s actions were not rashly undertaken with knowledge of the risk created by the weakened member. The commissioner also noted the action taken by Claimant was not “an intentional violation of an express or implied prohibition” by Claimant’s treating physician. The Court of Appeals therefore affirms the district court’s judicial review decision with respect to the Employer’s appeal.

 With respect to the cross-appeal, the Court of Appeals concluded the district court erred in its interpretation of the controlling case law. The Employer is responsible to make direct payment to Claimant for “past medical expenses paid through insurance coverage”  under Midwest Ambulance Serv. v. Ruud, 754 N.W.2d 860, 867–68 (Iowa 2008). Therefore, The Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s judicial review decision.


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