First Covid-19 Work Comp Case in Iowa is Found Not Work-Related
In Bolton v. Marcus Lumber, File No. 20015335.01 (Arb. March 24, 2022), the first Covid-19 case to come before the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commission, Cutler Law Firm attorneys Bob Gainer and Greg Taylor successfully represented the employer and insurance carrier in arguing that the decedent had not contracted the virus at work.
The case involved the tragic death of a hardware store employee who contracted Covid-19 in late November 2020 and, within weeks, was dead at the age of 59. The hearing deputy focused on how the employer had a mask mandate and social distancing policy consistent with CDC guidelines that the decedent followed whenever he was at work. Outside of work, the decedent did not wear a mask during multiple extended encounters with individuals outside of his immediate household. For instance, the decedent did not wear a mask or practice 6-feet social distancing during weekly interactions with family members working on a farm, attending volunteer fire fighter meetings and events, and eating Thanksgiving dinner over a 3-hour period with extended family members. Although none of the decedent’s family members were symptomatic around the time of death, there was no evidence that any of them (except for his spouse) took a Covid-19 test within 14 days of the decedent becoming symptomatic. There was also no contract tracing performed to support the contention that he contracted the virus from someone at work. Finally, expert testimony cited studies which found that asymptomatic carriers accounted for approximately 40-45 percent of Covid-19 transmissions.
The deputy noted that the claimant’s argument “might be more persuasive” if the decedent always wore a mask outside of work, but because he did not, and because he was a “rule follower” who complied with the employer’s mask mandate and social distancing policy while he was at work, the claimant's claim failed. We believe this decision is reflective of the heavy burden an employee has when trying to prove that, more likely than not, the claimant’s workplace was a substantial factor in causing a Covid-19 infection.
Of course, the facts of each case are important and should be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. As always, please feel free to contact any of our attorneys for questions regarding this or any other workers’ compensation issues.