Have you had an employee hurt her or his shoulder at work? Did you hurt your own shoulder at work? Unfortunately, you have walked into one of the most contentious areas of Iowa’s workers’ compensation, and full knowledge of the exact anatomical body part will determine the injured worker’s extent of recovery.
In 2017, the Iowa Legislature made a significant change to Iowa’s workers’ compensation law by adding the “shoulder” to the list of scheduled members. Under Iowa law, permanent disability compensation for scheduled members is limited to an impairment rating assigned by a doctor based upon functional loss; the shoulder is limited to a maximum 400 weeks of compensation. If an injured worker’s injury does not fall within a scheduled member, then he or she is entitled to an industrial award (or body-as-a-whole award) up to 500 weeks based upon an evaluation of functional loss in addition to a slew of other factors such as loss of earning capacity, age, education, work experience, and more. See the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission’s website, under “TYPES OF DISABILITY BENEFITS, Unscheduled (Body As A Whole) Disabilities,” for more factors. Clearly, an injured worker will want an injury to fall outside the definition of “shoulder” and become industrial; the insurance company will want a workers’ injury to fall within that definition in order to reduce exposure.
As mentioned, the term “shoulder” was added as a scheduled member by the Iowa Legislature in 2017. However, the Legislature failed to define which parts of the body parts are included in “shoulder” injuries and which are neck, pecs, or breast injuries; thus, making the award industrial. This debate rages among Iowa workers’ compensation attorneys and continues to develop.
The Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commission waded into this issue several times. However, Deng v. Farmland Foods, Inc. (Arb. Dec. Feb. 25, 2020), sparked new controversy in the ongoing shoulder debate. In Deng, the claimant sustained injury to her labrum and infraspinatus (more commonly called a rotator cuff injury). The parties agreed that the labrum fell within the definition of shoulder since the labrum is located entirely within the glenohumeral joint (the ball-and-socket). The deputy commissioner then determined that because the injury to the infraspinatus was outside the glenohumeral joint, the injury fell outside the scope of a shoulder injury and was industrial.
On appeal, to Commissioner Joseph Cortese, the Commissioner disagreed. See Deng v. Farmland Food (App. Dec. Sept. 29, 2020). In the first commissioner-level decision, the Commissioner found that that infraspinatus was a shoulder injury since the muscle was closely entwined with the glenohumeral joint and the muscles of the rotator cuff. Accordingly, a “shoulder” injury encompasses all muscles, tendons, and bones that are so interconnected to the glenohumeral joint to allow it to function properly. Since then, the agency has found the following anatomical parts as scheduled shoulder injuries:
- The labrum – Deng v. Farmland Food (App. Dec. Sept. 29, 2020) and Chavez v. MS Tech., LLC (App. Dec. Sept. 30, 2020);
- The muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and subscapularis) – Deng v. Farmland Food (App. Dec. Sept. 29, 2020) and Chavez v. MS Tech., LLC (App. Dec. Sept. 30, 2020);
- Acromion – Chavez v. MS Tech., LLC (App. Dec. Sept. 30, 2020);
- Subacromial space – Chavez v. MS Tech., LLC (App. Dec. Sept. 30, 2020);
- Acromioclavicular joint – Cox v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc. (Arb. Dec. March 9, 2021) and Trujillo v. John Deere Davenport Works (Arb. Dec. March 17, 2021);
- The subacromial bursa – Cox v. Bridgestone Americas, Inc. (Arb. Dec. March 9, 2021);
- The biceps tendons (including SLAP tears) – Retterrath v. John Deere Waterloo Works (Arb. Dec. Dec. 22, 2020) and Trujillo v. John Deere Davenport Works (Arb. Dec. March 17, 2021).
Shoulder injuries are complex. How far do shoulder injuries extend? Is the clavicle part of the shoulder? Does a shoulder injury include major muscles such as the trapezius, the pectoralis major or minor, or the deltoid? Where does the “shoulder” stop, and the “arm” begin?
Deng and Chavez are presently on appeal in Iowa’s appellate courts. The law defining the muscles, ligaments, and bones encompassing shoulder injuries will continually develop through the agency and courts. In the meantime, the Iowa workers’ compensation attorneys at Cassem, Tierney, Adams, Gotch & Douglas will monitor the ongoing controversy surrounding shoulder injuries in Iowa to better apprise our clients of changes in the law and to recommend suitable strategies moving forward in any claim or case.
Michael R. Faz