COVID-19: Workers' Compensation Impact


March 24, 2020

In the course of a pandemic, the causal connection between work and virus contraction is a concern for Iowa employers.

 

The coronavirus (“COVID-19”) and its impact on the Iowa workplace raise many legal questions for employers and their insurance carriers. One area of concern is whether there is workers’ compensation liability for employees who contract the virus. Because this is a new virus, currently no legal authority directly addresses COVID-19. While new law can always develop, few existing Iowa cases address compensability from contracting any type of virus, which itself is telling.

 

What is the takeaway?

 

COVID-19 is a new virus that may have profound implications for employers. However, from a workers’ compensation standpoint, it is not much different than an analysis of the flu. Due to its prevalence outside the workplace, the causal connection between work and contraction of the virus will be difficult to prove unless the person has a very specific occupation (i.e. health-care worker) where medical causation may be less tenuous. In some cases, worsened symptoms from COVID-19 contraction may be related to a compensable injury, and therefore, may also be compensable.

 

What type of event is compensable?

 

Under Iowa law, compensation may be owed for two types of events that arise out of and in the course of employment. The first type of event, under Chapter 85, is for personal injuries, defined to mean “an injury to the body, the impairment of health, or a disease, which comes about, not through natural building up and tearing down of the human body, but because of a traumatic or other hurt or damage to the health or body of an employee.” The second type of event, under Chapter 85A, is for injurious exposure to a workplace hazard that results in an occupational disease, normally arising from repeated traumatic exposure to toxic chemicals or harmful agents.

 

Could contracting COVID-19 be a sudden traumatic event or an injurious exposure?

 

At first glance, it may seem the contraction of COVID-19 could be an injurious exposure causing an occupational disease. However, under Iowa law, the disease must have a direct causal connection to the employment, following as a natural incident from an injurious exposure occasioned by the nature of the work. It must be incidental to the character of the business, occupation, or process of the employer. The disease must have its origin in a risk connected with the employment and result from that risk.

 

Most importantly, it must not result from a hazard to which an employee would have been equally exposed outside the work environment. The occupational disease law also contemplates repeated traumatic exposure, which is usually uncharacteristic of catching a virus. No cases were found that met this standard for the contraction of any type of virus. Therefore, if it were to be compensable, it would most likely be considered a personal injury from a “sudden traumatic event” and not compensated as an occupational disease.

 

This is consistent with case law, which has considered the compensability for virus exposure in a few instances. Not surprisingly, most of the cases involved health-care workers, with traumatic, sudden, and clear exposure to a virus.

  • Perkins v. HEA of Iowa, Inc., 2002 WL 180329 (Iowa Ct. App. 2002) (medication assistant exposed to Hepatitis C when a shunt in patient’s leg abruptly ruptured and entered her eyes and mouth; held compensable as a sudden, traumatic event);
  • Mercy Hospital Iowa City v. Goodner, 828 N.W.2d 325 (Iowa Ct. App. 2013) (physician treating patient with mononucleosis who vomited on her hands during the examination and contracted mono, developed chronic fatigue syndrome and depression as a result, was found compensable).

 

While there are some significant distinctions between these two types of workers’ compensation events, they both require proof that the exposure/injury is causally related to the employment. The differences are not of much consequence here because the ubiquitous nature of any virus makes work-relatedness difficult to prove.

 

What is required to prove an injury is work-related?

 

To be compensable, there must be a causal relationship between the work accident/exposure and the claimed injury. It must be a rational consequence of a hazard connected to the employment and a substantial factor in bringing about the result. This usually requires expert medical opinions.

 

The ever-increasing spread of COVID-19 appears to be rampant and many may not even be aware they are infected. It is difficult to imagine a medical expert opining there is a causal connection between the workplace and contraction to a reasonable degree of medical certainty in the majority of cases. An exception to this may be in the case of health-care workers.

 

If COVID-19 is not likely to be a compensable injury, could it affect compensability of other work-related injuries?

 

Under Iowa law, there are situations where a workers’ pre-existing condition can be exacerbated by a compensable injury or a work-related injury can predispose a worker to a subsequent otherwise unrelated condition. Upon proof of the work-related aggravation, these other non-work-related injuries may also be compensable. For example, it may be possible for a worker to establish their occupational respiratory disease predisposed them to contraction of COVID-19, and therefore, it may also be a compensable injury.

 

Some examples of this can be found in the following cases:

 

  • Mid-Seven Transportation Co. v. Coffey, 707 N.W.2d 337 (Iowa Ct. App. 2005) (worker who contracted polio virus as a child, and whose left leg was run over by a tractor trailer was also compensated for post-polio syndrome which resulted from the work injury);
  • Hutchison v. Nitro Electric Co. LLC and Liberty Mutual, 2010 WL 1980403 (Iowa Worker’s Comp. Comm’n, 2010) (pre-existing herpetic virus condition was aggravated by work-related trauma to eye);
  • Reed v. Sears Roebuck and Co., 2003 WL 23021546 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 2003) (work-related pre-existing asthma lowered Claimant’s threshold for asthma symptoms to any subsequent environmental exposure be that virus, bacterial…or other air-borne irritant or allergen);
  • McDonald v. EZ Payroll & Staffing Solutions, LLC and Zurich American Ins. Co., 2017 WL 3276035 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 2017) (Commissioner reversed deputy’s decision that Claimant’s Legionnaires’ disease which he allegedly contracted from bacteria in the city water during his work because there was no evidence that multiple individuals similarly exposed also developed the infection);
  • Everhart v. Clarinda Correctional Facility and State of Iowa, 2005 WL 2465835 (Iowa Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 2005) (compensable mental-mental case involving prison guard who developed posttraumatic stress disorder and depression from fear of having contracted HIV after having been spat upon in the face by an inmate the guard reasonably suspected had HIV).

 

Workers' Compensation Team

 

Nyemaster’s dedicated workers’ compensation attorneys are continually reviewing the legal implications of COVID-19 for employers. Contact any attorney on the team with questions or to get assistance with your specific situation.

 

Keith Duffy  Stephanie Marett  Joe Quinn  Coreen Sweeney  Stephanie Techau

 

Nyemaster attorney Shelley Goodell compiled the information used in this article.