from the Iowa District Court for Pottawattamie County,
Jeffrey L. Larson, Judge.
workers' compensation claimant appeals a district court
ruling affirming the commissioner's denial of benefits.
REVERSED AND REMANDED.
Douglas R. Novotny of Novotny Law, LLC, Omaha, NE, for
Z. Dickson and Paul M. Powers of Betty, Neuman & McMahon,
P.L.C., Davenport, for appellees.
case, we return to the question of when an idiopathic
workplace fall is compensable. We last addressed this issue
nearly two decades ago.
fast-food employee who was handling a customer order had a
seizure and fell backwards directly to a ceramic tile floor.
He suffered serious head injuries. The workers'
compensation commissioner declined to award benefits,
reasoning that idiopathic falls from a standing or walking
position to a level floor do not arise out of employment
under our workers' compensation law. The employee
petitioned for judicial review, and the district court
affirmed the commissioner for the same reasons.
appeal, we reverse. We conclude there is no blanket rule
rendering certain categories of workplace idiopathic falls
noncompensable, so long as the employees proves that a
"condition of his [or her] employment increased the risk
of injury." Koehler Elec. v. Wills, 608 N.W.2d
1, 5 (Iowa 2000). Because the commissioner incorrectly
treated a factual issue as a legal matter, we remand for
further agency proceedings.
Facts and Procedural History.
Bluml is a high school graduate who has worked a number of
supervisor jobs in fast-food restaurants. In approximately
2007, Bluml began to have seizures. In one instance, Bluml
experienced a seizure while driving, which resulted in a
crash into a house. Bluml was prescribed antiseizure
medicine. In the months leading up to February 2012, Bluml
had not been taking his antiseizure medication regularly and
also had some issues with alcohol abuse.
February 15, 2012, Bluml-then 38 years old-was working at a
Long John Silver's in Council Bluffs as shift manager.
Bluml had called in late for work that evening because he was
not feeling well. About two hours into his shift, Bluml was
working behind the customer counter. According to witnesses,
Bluml experienced a full-body seizure. He fell straight
backward onto the ceramic tile floor of the restaurant,
striking the back of his head. Witnesses heard Bluml's
head hit the tile floor. In addition to seeing blood on the
floor, they saw nearby a paper bag containing a customer
order that Bluml apparently had in his hand when he fell.
Bluml was taken to the emergency room where he was found to
have an acute subarachnoid hemorrhage and required
was transferred to the University of Nebraska Medical Center
for further care. On February 18, doctors performed a left
decompressive craniectomy. On March 12, Bluml began a course
of rehabilitation for his brain injuries. On June 6, he
underwent a left-sided cranioplasty. Following his release,
Bluml went to work in the fast-food business again, although
he still has significant cognitive impairments, especially
with reading, memory, and judgment. Bluml presently works as
a cook rather than as a manager. He continues to suffer from
seizures and to struggle with alcohol abuse.
February 7, 2014, Bluml filed a petition for arbitration
before the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commission, seeking
workers compensation benefits from Dee Jays Inc. d/b/a Long
John Silvers, the employer, and Commerce & Industry
Insurance Company, the carrier, relating to the February 15,
2012 incident. The case went to hearing, and on January 13,
2016, the deputy commissioner issued his arbitration
decision, the deputy ruled that Bluml had failed to carry his
burden of proof that he had sustained an injury that arose
out of and in the course of employment. The deputy noted that
Bluml had suffered an idiopathic fall, i.e., a fall due to a
personal condition, and concluded, "[T]he law appears
clear that idiopathic falls to level surfaces are not
compensable under Iowa law."
appealed to the commissioner. On July 20, 2017, the
commissioner affirmed the deputy. The commissioner observed,
"There is no real dispute that the injuries sustained by
claimant were rendered more serious because claimant's
fall occurred on a ceramic tile floor inside
defendant-employer's restaurant." He commented that
a minority rule "hold[s] that idiopathic falls on a
level floor are compensable when the hardness of the floor
affects the severity of the injury," whereas a majority
hold that idiopathic falls on a level floor are not
compensable regardless of the hardness of the floor on the
theory that a floor presents a risk or a hazard encountered
everywhere and that such risks and hazards presented by a
level floor are the same risks which confront all members of
commissioner acknowledged that the issue appears to be one of
"first impression" in Iowa. Ultimately, the
commissioner found "the authority and the arguments
presented by defendants in support of the majority rule on
this issue are more persuasive."
August 16, Bluml petitioned for judicial review in the Iowa
District Court for Pottawattamie County. On January 25, 2015,
the district court affirmed the commissioner's decision,
after discussing much of the same caselaw cited by the
commissioner and agreeing with the commissioner's
"interpretation of the applicable law." Bluml
appealed, and we retained the appeal.
Standard of Review.
question here is whether an idiopathic fall is compensable
because it "aris[es] out of . . . employment." Iowa
Code § 85.3(1) (2011). We will review the
commissioner's legal interpretation of this section for
errors at law. See Iowa Code §
17A.19(10)(c). "In recent years, we have
repeatedly declined to give deference to the
commissioner's interpretations of various provisions of
chapter 85." Iowa Ins. Inst. v. Core Group of Iowa
Ass'n for Justice, 867 N.W.2d 58, 65 (Iowa 2015).
The language at issue is not technical or within the special
expertise of the commissioner. See Renda v. Iowa Civil
Rights Comm'n 784 N.W.2d 8, 13-14 (Iowa 2010).
Indeed, we have previously held that this phrase should be
interpreted de novo by our court on administrative review.
Xenia Rural Water Dist. v. Vegors, 786 N.W.2d 250,
253 (Iowa 2010). However, we accept the commissioner's
factual findings when supported by substantial evidence.
See Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)(f).
not disputed that this case involves an idiopathic fall.
Bluml fell on February 15, 2012, because he had a seizure.
The seizure was unrelated to Bluml's work. In fact, Bluml
had a history of seizures, and it was happenstance that this
seizure occurred while Bluml was working.
Idiopathic Falls and the Increased-Risk Standard.
the parties and the commissioner devote considerable
attention to nonprecedential, unpublished opinions of the
court of appeals, we will focus on the published opinions.
The only published precedent in Iowa on idiopathic falls is
Koehler Electric, 608 N.W.2d 1. There the claimant
fell from a ladder to a cement floor while wiring a
customer's air conditioning unit. Id. at 2. The
claimant sustained serious head and shoulder injuries.
Id. Yet, the claimant appeared to be unconscious
when he fell, and it was determined that the cause of the
fall was alcohol withdrawal. Id. The commissioner
nonetheless awarded workers' compensation benefits,
reasoning that the claimant's "employment or working
environment placed him in a position that increased the
effects of his fall." Id. at 2-3.
appeal, we sustained the award. Id. at 5. First, we
noted that we had not previously addressed the compensability
of idiopathic falls. Id. at 4. We acknowledged that
"[g]enerally injuries resulting from risks personal to
the claimant are not compensable." Id. Yet we
noted an exception to this rule, where "an employee . .
. is placed in a position that aggravates the effects of an
idiopathic fall, such as a height." Id.
invoked what is known as the increased-risk rule. We held
that to recover for an idiopathic fall, the claimant needed
only prove "that a condition of his employment increased
the risk of injury." Id. at 5. In other words,
the claimant did not need to prove "the precise injuries
that were caused by the workplace condition, such as the
elevation from which the claimant fell." Id.
we found that no expert testimony was needed in the
particular case "because the fact finder could conclude
based on common experience that the risk of injury is greater
when one falls from a height of four to five feet onto a
concrete floor than when one falls on level ground."
ultimate question, of course, is whether the claimant has
suffered an injury "arising out of and in the course of
the employment." Iowa Code § 85.3(1). The
increased-risk test that we relied upon in Koehler
Electric is an interpretation of that phrase. 1 Arthur
Larson et al., Larson's Workers Compensation Law
§ 3.01, at 3-4 (2018) [hereafter ...