Beyond Workers' Compensation -- Your Legal Rights When Injured While Working

Worker injuries or death that occur while working can lead to several different types of personal injury or wrongful death claims. First, there are claims available under Iowa's workers' compensation statute, Iowa Code Chapter 85. Employers that have workers' compensation coverage are generally immune from all other types of injury or death claims outside of the workers' compensation process itself.

Second, "third-party liability" claims are sometimes available. Third-party liability claims encompass situations in which someone or something else, besides just the work environment, caused the employee's accident. An example might be a products liability claim that occurs because of injuries or death due to machinery, equipment, or chemicals. Or perhaps the employee was in a car accident while working. Other examples of third-party liability for a worker's injuries or death include fire or explosion, dog bites, dog-at-large/vehicle accidents, premises liability, truck, drunk driving, train or railroad, bicycle, or pedestrian accidents. In such cases the employee or the employee's surviving family may seek not only workers' compensation benefits but can also pursue money damages claims against responsible third parties.

Finally, difficult and rare "co-employee gross negligence" are available against co-workers who may have caused or contributed to the employee's injuries or death. Iowa Code 85.20(2) exposes co-workers to lawsuits for money damages if the accident is "caused by the other employee’s gross negligence amounting to such lack of care as to amount to wanton neglect for the safety of another." Co-worker gross negligence are very hard to prove. The co-worker is only liable if the plaintiff can prove a level of conduct akin to recklessness, which has been characterized as falling between mere unreasonable risk of harm in ordinary negligence and intent to harm.

Iowa requires that plaintiffs in co-worker gross negligence cases prove three elements for a successful claim under Iowa Code 85.20(2). One, the co-worker's knowledge of the peril that caused the employee's injuries or death. Two, the co-worker's knowledge that injury is a probable, as opposed to a possible, result of the danger. Three, the co-worker's conscious failure to avoid the peril.

Most co-worker gross negligence cases are fought are fought over the second and third elements. The second element, knowledge of probable injury, is the most frequent subject of court discussion. The Iowa Supreme Court has defined "probable" in this context as "that which seems reasonably to be expected: so far as fairly convincing evidence or indications go." In contrast, "possible consequences are those which happen so infrequently that they are not expected to happen again."

The second element of a co-worker gross negligence case requires more than a showing of the coworker's knowledge of foreseeability—even certainty—that accidents will happen. The probability prong is not satisfied by simply asserting that the coworkers knew that sooner or later someone would be injured. A plaintiff must show that the coworkers knew their actions would place the plaintiff in such "imminent danger" that he or she would be "more likely than not" be injured.

Harley Erbe