Safety and OSHA News

When can you stop paying workers’ comp?

All sorts of factors can come into play when determining whether workers’ comp payments can stop. These two recent cases address the question. One is called a “highly unusual situation” by the deciding court. The other is “an issue of first impression” for its state.

In what the Maine Supreme Judicial Court calls “this unusual case,” Fay Johnson, a Home Depot employee, has been missing since March 2012.

That month she was moving from one residence in Lewiston to another in Bethel.

Johnson’s landlord in Bethel alerted authorities five days after the last time she was seen. Her dog was left in her new residence, and her car has also gone missing.

She was receiving workers’ comp benefits for a workplace injury. In June 2012, Home Depot filed a petition to stop paying the benefits. A hearing officer heard both sides in October 2012. A January 2013 decision ordered Johnson’s benefits to be suspended until she reappeared and petitioned for a resumption of benefits.

Johnson’s attorney appealed. An appellate court affirmed the decision. The case next went to Maine’s highest court.

On her behalf, Johnson’s attorney challenged the hearing officer’s authority to direct Home Depot to suspend the workers’ comp benefits altogether pending Johnson’s reappearance.

But the state’s highest court affirmed the previous decisions, writing in its opinion:

“Here, by first segregating Johnson’s benefits for her future use, and then only suspending the payment of benefits with a proviso that they would be available retroactively if she later claimed them, the hearing officer protect both Home Depot’s legitimate interest in stopping payments that were not being received by its employee, and Johnson’s interest in collecting her full benefits if she is able to receive them in the future. That thoughtful and compassionate solution in light of these difficult circumstances is not error.”

(Fay E. Johnson v. The Home Depot USA Inc., Maine Supreme Judicial Court, No. WCB-14-54, 12/11/14)

Benefits while in jail?

In the second case, an issue of first impression in Nebraska, the question was whether an employee’s incarceration after suffering a compensable injury should prohibit workers’ comp benefits while the person is in prison.

Patricia Damme worked for Pike Enterprises. She also had a history of degenerative disk (back) disease dating back to 1995.

In 2009, while working at a McDonald’s owned by Pike, Damme hurt her back. She had surgery in 2013 which alleviated her pain.

She was awarded temporary total disability benefits from the date after her injury until she was released to go back to work in 2013 after her surgery.

Pike argued that Damme should not receive workers’ comp benefits while she spent time in jail on an unrelated matter. The company argued that the purpose of benefits is to replace wages, and since she couldn’t earn wages while in prison, she shouldn’t get the comp benefits.

Damme’s case made its way to the Supreme Court of Nebraska. In its decision, the court first noted that there is nothing in the state’s workers’ comp law that prohibits payment of benefits because an employee is incarcerated.

Next, the court said that the level of a worker’s disability “does not directly correlate to current wages.”

As an example of this, the court cited its previous ruling that an undocumented worker’s work status does not preclude the worker from receiving permanent disability benefits.

For those reasons, the court ruled that if a worker can prove a loss of earning capacity (and that was the case here), his or her incarceration after being injured “is not an event that bars the claimant’s receipt of disability benefits.”

Damme was allowed to receive workers’ comp benefits for the period when she was in jail.

What do you think about the courts’ rulings in these two cases? Let us know in the comments.

(Patricia M. Damme v. Pike Enterprises Inc., Supreme Court of Nebraska, No. S-14-304, 12/5/14)

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