As the country song goes, if it weren’t for bad luck, Grady Billick would have no luck at all, at least as far as avoiding injuries at work. In fact, he’s been injured so many times, his employer wants a reduction in what it would pay in workers’ comp benefits for his most recent mishap.
First a recounting of Billick’s injuries:
- In 1985, he suffered a back injury and settled his claim against his first employer.
- In 1993, he was injured again at a second employer. The truck he was driving crashed, and Billick suffered injuries to his head, neck, left shoulder, ribs, back and left arm. He settled this claim with the second employer.
- Billick began working for Roberts Dairy in 2001 and suffered four injuries while with the company. The first injury in March 2004 was caused when a dolly carrying milk crates struck his left ankle and trapped it against a dock plate.
- In June 2004, shelving in a store collapsed while Billick was making a delivery. This led to shoulder surgery.
- In 2006, rusty bolts on a trailer strap came loose when Billick was pulling a truck door shut. He lost his balance, fell out of the truck, and injured his left arm and elbow.
- In 2007, a misaligned loading dock caused several milk crates to fall off a dolly. The crates struck Billick in the chest and shoulder. While driving back after sustaining this injury, another vehicle’s erratic movement caused Billick to steer his truck off the road, exacerbating his chest and shoulder injuries.
Billick filed four workers’ comp petitions against Roberts. The claims were consolidated.
Roberts argued its liability for Billicks’ injuries should be apportioned because he was previously compensated for losses of earning capacity at his two previous jobs.
An Iowa workers’ compensation commissioner rejected Roberts’ argument. On appeal, a state court agreed with the company. Billick appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Fresh starts and full responsibility
Before 2004, cases like Billick’s in Iowa were governed by two principles:
- The fresh-start rule stated when an employee who suffered a work-related injury resulting in permanent partial disability begins employment with a new employer, the employee enjoys a renewed earning capacity.
- The full-responsibility rule said when there are two successive work-related injuries, the employer liable for the second injury is generally held liable for the entire disability resulting from the combination of the prior disability and the present injury.
In 2004, the Iowa legislature amended its workers’ comp law to “prevent all double recoveries and all double reductions in workers’ compensation benefits for permanent partial disability.”
Sounds like Billick would again be out of luck, right? Well, maybe this is where his luck turned around.
The Iowa Supreme Court noted that while the legislature intended to modify the fresh-start rule, it didn’t intend to eliminate it altogether.
The workers’ comp commissioner had found the amended law didn’t change the fresh-start rule in cases involving successive injuries with different employers.
The changes made by the legislature only affected successive work-related injuries suffered while working for the same employer, according to the commissioner.
The Iowa Supreme Court said this was the correct interpretation of what the legislature intended. In its opinion, the court wrote:
“Iowa Code provides no mechanism for apportioning the loss between the present and previous employers … If the legislature wanted to require a credit or offset of disability benefits in cases of successive unscheduled injuries with different employers, it logically would have prescribed how it should be determined.”
The decision: The state’s highest court affirmed the commissioner’s original decision that the company is responsible for full disability benefits for Billick even though he had a long history of workplace injuries, including two at other companies.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(Roberts Dairy v. Grady Billick, Supreme Court of Iowa, No. 13-1009, 4/3/15)