Iowa Supreme Court Upholds Exclusivity Provision of Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act

Posted on: August 10th, 2023

Jena McCoy worked three months at the Thomas L. Cardella & Associates call center in Ottumwa before resigning after ongoing sexual advances from a team leader. She later sued Cardella, asserting a claim for common law negligent supervision or retention. Cardella’s pretrial legal challenges included that the common law claim was preempted by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act (IWCA). McCoy avoided pretrial dismissal and sought emotional distress damages related to her mental health diagnoses.

The IWCA provides statutory compensation for employees injured in the workplace. Iowa Code chapter 85. When an employee is injured by the tortious acts of another employee at work, the workers’ compensation exclusivity rule precludes the injured employee from bringing a common law tort action against the employer for the injuries. The IWCA exclusivity rule applies to claims for negligent supervision or retention. The Court reasoned that McCoy’s injuries arose out of and in the course of her employment with Cardella, but the exclusivity provision does not preclude a common law claim if the “injuries fall outside the workers’ compensation law.” That determination is made based on the plaintiff’s claimed damages. “In Iowa purely mental injuries caused by the workplace, even in the absence of a physical injury, are compensable under workers’ compensation.” (citation omitted).

In her resistance to summary judgment, McCoy framed her damages as non-physical, including lost wages and harm to her reputation, which would be recoverable under her common law claim. However, the only evidence of damages submitted to the jury were those related to her mental health diagnosis. The Supreme Court determined that the basis of McCoy’s lawsuit was recovery of mental health injuries caused by Cardella’s failure to protect her from injury in the workplace. Under the IWCA, her mental health injury qualified as a physical injury. Therefore, her common law claim was precluded by the exclusivity provision of the IWCA.

Jena McCoy v. Thomas L. Cardella & Associates, No. 22-0918 (June 16, 2023).

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