2018 Wrap-Up: Workers Compensation Legal Rulings

In 2018, we witnessed multiple federal and state-level legal decisions that had a serious impact on both workers compensation and workplace safety in the United States. Here's a brief look at several rulings from the past year that may impact you when filing a workers' compensation case.

Third-Party Injury Lawsuits in Pennsylvania

In November, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a workers' compensation insurer cannot file a lawsuit against a third party on behalf of an injured employee if they did not independently sue the party, did not assign the cause of action to the insurer, or did not join in the insurer's action.

This ruling resulted from a 2013 workers' compensation case. In October 2013, Chunli Chen was struck by a rental vehicle driven by Kafumba Kamara while standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Car Rental and suffered injuries to her head, neck, and back. Her employer at the time was Reliance Sourcing, and their insurer -- Hartford Insurance Group -- paid medical and wage benefits to Chen with the company's workers compensation coverage. Chen did not file a third-party action against the driver or the car rental company. Just as the two-year statute of limitations was about to expire on the accident, the insurer attempted to sue Kamara and Thrifty Car Rental. The complaint wasn't verified by Chen, however, so the insurer was unable to sue the responsible parties.

New Legislature Re-Instituting Impairment Rating Evaluations

In October 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1840 into law, which restores the use of the impairment rating evaluation (IRE) process in workers' compensation cases in Pennsylvania. In the Protz vs. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Derry Area School District) case - which began in the Commonwealth Court of PA in 2015 - the PA Supreme Court completely rid the Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE) provision altogether, labeling it an unconstitutional delegation of power due to the use of the American Medical Association guidelines.

What's an IRE? Well, previously, employers could require injured workers undergo impairment rating evaluations after the claimant had received 104 weeks of total disability benefits. A doctor was assigned to perform the evaluation by the American Medical Association's guidelines. And if - under those guidelines -  the doctor determined that the claimant's injury caused less than 50 percent impairment, their workers' compensation benefits could be modified from total to partial disability.

The issue: In Pennsylvania, there isn't a cap on the length of time a claimant can receive total disability benefits, but partial disability benefits are capped at 500 weeks. So, employers putting their injured employees through the IRE process often did so with the intent to cap the benefits of those receiving total disability by a modification of status. However, in Protz vs. WCAB (Derry Area School District), the Court maintained that the IRE process was unconstitutional because the legislature is not permitted to delegate its authority to issue impairment rating guidelines to a non-legislative body (i.e. the American Medical Association). So, employers were no longer able to make IRE requests.

In the March 2018 Whitfield v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Tenet Health System Hahnemann LLC) case, the Commonwealth Court of PA reversed the decision of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), and instead ruled that injured claimants who had their total disability taken away after an IRE were able to reinstate their total disability benefits remanded if they can prove they remain totally disabled.

One benefit to injured workers in the law implemented by Gov. Wolf is that total disability benefits are presumed to continue if the IRE results in an impairment rating equal to or greater than 35 - not 50 percent like the previous provisions of the act.

Let Dugan & Associates Help You!

If you or someone you love has significantly injured themselves at work, the team at Dugan & Associates is ready to look at your case. Our team of experienced workplace injury lawyers will make sure you receive the maximum monetary compensation available to you. Give us a call at 412-353-3572 or contact us online today for your free consultation.

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