Iowa Court Rules in Firefighter Workers’ Comp Case

August 17, 2010

A volunteer firefighter must be summoned to duty only through official channels and not by circumstances, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled as it sought to resolve a workers compensation claim.

The court ruled Friday in a case between insurance companies disputing a claim for volunteer firefighter Justin Fauer, who died in 2005 after he tried to save his boss from a manure pit on the cattle farm where they worked near Andover in Clinton County.

The farm’s insurance company, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company, paid the claim but sought for it to be shared by the fire department’s company, Traveler’s Insurance Company, claiming Fauer also responded as a firefighter.

Fauer’s boss, Dwight Johnson, climbed into a manure pit at Johnson Valley Beef to retrieve a chain that had fallen into the pit and was overcome by methane fumes, court records show.

Fauer, a volunteer firefighter with Andover Volunteer Fire Department, ran to the house to tell Johnson’s wife to call 911 and then returned to the pit where he climbed in and was also overcome.

A deputy workers compensation commissioner ruled that Fauer responded to the emergency as both a farm hand and a volunteer firefighter because some of the injuries that led to his death occurred after he would have been notified in his capacity as a firefighter.

The court said the commissioner “determined Justin was summoned to duty by the dispatcher either before or after he was overcome by the methane gas.”

As a result, the commissioner found Traveler’s was responsible for one-half the benefits paid through the workers compensation claim. Traveler’s appealed but the commissioner ruled the timing of the notice to Fauer’s pager “was not critical to the determination of coverage … because Justin has been summoned to duty as a volunteer firefighter by the circumstances themselves.”

The commissioner determined that failure to allow volunteer firefighters to call themselves to duty would have the “absurd result of deterring them from immediately rendering assistance upon encountering an emergency.”

Traveler’s sought a review by the court and a district court rejected the commissioner’s ruling. “It concluded a volunteer firefighter cannot be summoned to duty by circumstances, but can only be summoned by the fire department or some other official channel.”

The district court ruled that Fauer could only have been summoned by a page from the emergency communications center, which was sent 1 minute 8 seconds after the emergency communications center received the 911 call, court records show.

Grinnell appealed the court’s decision but it was rejected by the Iowa Supreme Court, which upheld the district court’s decision.

Charles Blades, an attorney for Grinnell, was disappointed in the decision.

He called it a “unique case in workers compensation because it’s between two insurance companies.

“I wonder if instead the case had involved an individual who was seeking comp from the fire department and that was their only source, I think the court would have looked at the case differently and the result would maybe have been different,” he said.

A telephone message left Friday for an attorney for Traveler’s Mutual Insurance was not immediately returned.

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