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What Do You Think: Did Iowa Discovery Rule Toll Workers’ Compensation Statute of Limitations?

01 Jan, 2024 Frank Ferreri

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Des Moines, IA (WorkersCompensation.com) -- When does a worker have an injury and when should he know that he has one that might raise workers' compensation questions?

Recently, an Iowa case raised questions about timeliness, the statute of limitations, and when time requirements should be paused or "tolled."

A family farm worker whose supervisor was his dad was vacuuming grain out of a bin when he hurt his right arm. The pain persisted, so the worker sought medical treatment. He was diagnosed with tennis elbow and advised to take two Aleve per day, ice the elbow, and use a wrist splint.

When the pain did not subside, the worker began physical therapy, which also did not help. Because of the continuing pain, he underwent an MRI, which showed a "significant deltoid insertional tear" and was described as an "unusual injury." The worker underwent surgery.

The worker's father had been submitting the medical bills to his health insurance carrier, but he submitted the bills related to the surgery to his workers' compensation carrier for the farm.

The workers' compensation carrier directed the worker to undergo an independent medical examination, which concluded that the elbow pain and the deltoid injury were not caused by the same event.

In turn, the worker sought an IME, and the performing physician concluded that the deltoid tear related to overcompensating for the tennis elbow. This IME physician concluded that the worker's right elbow and shoulder injuries combined for a 5 percent upper extremity impairment that converted to a 3 percent whole person impairment.

At an arbitration hearing, a deputy commissioner applied the discovery rule to conclude that the worker did not learn of the seriousness of his injury until April 2018, which meant that his Jan. 21, 2020, petition complied with the two-year statute of limitations.

On appeal, the district court disagreed with the commissioner's application of the discovery rule to make the worker's claim for benefits associated with both injuries timely. According to the court, the tennis elbow claims were time-barred, but the deltoid tear was a cumulative injury that manifested itself within the limitations period. Thus, the court limited the worker's recovery to compensation for the deltoid tear but not the tennis elbow.

Because the court concluded that substantial evidence supported the commissioner's decision to award reimbursement of the full cost of the worker's IME, the workers' compensation carrier appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Under Iowa law, the statute of limitations bars a claim for benefits unless the proceeding is commenced within two years from the date of the occurrence of the injury. In 2017, the law was amended to define "date of the occurrence of the injury" to mean the "date that the employee knew or should have known that the injury was work-related."

Prior to this amendment, Iowa courts applied a "discovery rule," to toll the statute of limitations. The discovery rule tolled the period for commencing a proceeding until the employee knew that a physical condition was serious enough to have a permanent adverse impact on the claimant's employment or employability.

Was the worker's claim spared by the discovery rule?
A. Yes. The amendment in 2017 only codified the manifestation rule for cumulative injuries but left only the discovery rule.
B. No. The amendment eliminated the discovery rule because it included a definition for "date of the occurrence of injury."

If you chose B, you agreed with Iowa's top court in Tweeten v. Tweeten, No. 22-2081 (Iowa 12/22/23), which held that the two-year statute of limitations period begins to run when an employee knows or should know that an injury is work-related without regard to whether the injury is also serious enough to be compensable.

In the 2017 amendment, the court explained, the Iowa general assembly "set the parameters" for the discovery to require proceedings to commence within two years from when a claimant knew or should have known.

Thus, the clock had run out on the worker's claim by the time he filed for benefits.

"[The worker] knew he had a right-arm injury that was work-related more than two years before he sought benefits, and his claim is therefore barred as untimely," the court wrote.


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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

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