Maine State Law Court makes important Workers Compensation ruling

By Rudman Winchell Attorney

By: Rudman Winchell attorney Virginia K. Putnam.

 WORKERS’ COMPENSATION LAW COURT CASE UPDATE

CASE:            William Buckley v. S. D. Warren, 2012 ME 104

DATE:            August 7, 2012

SYNOPSIS:

This Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision follows the Court’s decision in Buckley v. S. D. Warren Company, 2010 Me 53, 1997 A.2d 747 (Buckley I) and further addresses how permanent impairment ratings are combined or stacked when there are multiple work injuries.  Under Section 213 of The Workers’ Compensation Act, if the permanent impairment level is above a certain threshold, then the employee would be entitled to compensation for the duration of the disability rather than for a statutory maximum number of weeks.  As explained in further detail below, the Court in Buckley II held that the hearing officer correctly determine that permanent impairment from a subsequent injury that was caused by the prior injury could be stacked onto impairment from the prior injury but not vice versa. 

BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF DECISION

The employee worked for S. D. Warren from 1981 until 2002.  He suffered an injury in October 1996 to his left shoulder, an injury in November 1996 to his left shoulder, an injury in March 2000 to his right shoulder, and an injury in October 2001 to both shoulders.  The decision in Buckley II arose out of the Court’s remand case to the Workers Compensation Board for further proceedings consistent with its opinion in Buckley I.  The Court in Buckley I explained that where the employee suffers multiple partial incapacitating injuries and one injury aggravates or accelerates another, then the injuries are related.  In those cases, the permanent impairment level for each injury may be stacked or combined in order to determine whether the permanent impairment of each injury exceeds the threshold.  This is important because under Section 213, if the permanent impairment level is above a certain threshold, which is 13.4% for the dates of injury in this case, then the employee would be entitled to compensation for the duration of the disability.  If the permanent impairment level is not above the threshold, then the employee may only receive benefits for the statutory maximum number of weeks. See 39-A M.R.S. § 213. In Buckley I, the Court stated that “because the 2000 injury resulted from the 1996 injuries, the permanent impairment that resulted from the 2000 injuries also resulted from the 1996 injuries; thus, we reason, the impairment from those injuries should be combined when determining whether the threshold has been reached.”  Buckley I, 2010 Me 53, ¶ 4, 1997 A.2d 747. 

On remand, the Hearing Officer stacked the impairment from the 2000 right shoulder injury onto the impairment from the 1996 left shoulder injuries but did not stack the impairment from the 1996 injuries forward onto the 2000 and 2001 injuries.  In addition, the Hearing Officer found that the employee suffered 0% permanent impairment from the 2001 injury.  The employee agreed that the Hearing Officer correctly stacked the permanent impairment from the 2000 right shoulder injury onto the two 1996 left shoulder injuries so that the permanent impairment rating for each of the left shoulder injuries was 14% but argued that the Hearing Officer erred when it failed to stack the 7% impairment rating for the two 1996 left shoulder injuries onto the 2000 right shoulder injury and the 2001 bilateral shoulder injuries.  The employee appealed this decision which was affirmed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (Buckley II). 

  In Buckley II, the Court first found that the Hearing Officer correctly assigned a percentage of permanent impairment to each injury separately. Buckley II, 2012 ME 104, ¶ 20. It also agreed with the Hearing Officer’s analysis that causation flows in only one direction and that is forward.  Buckley II, 2012 ME 104, § 21.  The 2000 injury was causally connected to the 1996 injuries in that the 1996 injuries caused the 2000 injury but not vice versa.  The Court agreed that causation could be prospective only and therefore permanent impairment from the 1996 injuries could not be stacked onto that resulting from the 2000 injury.  The permanent impairment rating for the 2000 injury remained at 7%. 

Regarding the employee’s second argument that the Hearing Officer’s finding of 0% permanent impairment from the 2001 bilateral shoulder injury contradicted a finding in the 2008 decree that he suffered 7% permanent impairment from that injury, the Law Court also agreed with the Hearing Officer’s finding.  The Court explained that in 2008, the Hearing Officer did not clearly parse out the percentages of permanent impairment to be assigned to each injury but instead allocated 7% to the left shoulder and 7% to the right shoulder.  At that time, the Hearing Officer stated that there was no additional permanent impairment to the left shoulder.  In the 2011 decree, the Hearing Officer stated “I further conclude that the 2001 injury resulted in 0% permanent impairment, because it did not cause any additional permanent impairment to either shoulder, nor did it otherwise aggravate or accelerate the earlier injuries.”  Buckley II, 2012 ME 104, § 24.   The Law Court found that the 2008 finding that “the permanent impairment attributable to the 2000 and 2001 injuries is 7% to the right shoulder with no additional permanent impairment to the left shoulder from these injuries” is not necessarily inconsistent with the 2011 finding that 0% impairment is attributable to the 2001 injury.”  Buckley II, 2012 ME 104, § 25.

Justices Jabar and Silver joined in dissenting on both arguments addressed by the Court.  They contend that the Hearing Officer had misunderstood the ruling in Buckley I when it relied upon a concept of causation.  They believed the permanent impairment percentages for the 2000 and the two 1996 prior work related injuries should be combined because they are part of the work injury at issue.  In addition they agreed with the employee that the Hearing Officer failed to make the proper determination regarding the 2001 injury.  The Hearing Officer needed to make findings as to whether the 2001 injury was related to the prior work injuries and stated there was a great deal of evidence pointing in this direction.  They stated that the case should be remanded and the Hearing Officer directed to determine whether the prior 1996 left shoulder injuries and/or the 2000 right shoulder injury are related to the 2001 injury to both shoulders.

To view the decision:

http://www.courts.state.me.us/opinions_orders/opinions/2012_documents/12me104bu.pdf

 

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