Court Rules: Employer Must Pay Permanent Total Disability to Worker Who Did Not Reach MMI
Oneal Gillispie sustained compensable injuries to his back, right shoulder and neck in March 2014 while working for Estes Express Lines Inc. Following injury, Gillispie underwent two surgeries, extensive treatment for his lumbar spine and had a spinal cord stimulator inserted and removed. After all was said and done, Gillispie was released to temporary light-duty work with permanent restrictions in April 2017.
Estes was unable to provide Gillispie with appropriate work accommodations to match the restrictions placed on him and so did not bring him back in to work. Without light-duty options, Gillispie remained on his temporary total disability (TTD) benefits.
In the state of Oklahoma, where Estes and Gillispie are located, the statutory maximum of TTD is 104 weeks. When the 104 weeks passed, Gillispie filed for permanent total disability (PTD) benefits as he was still restricted by light-duty requirements and was not working.
Evaluating and establishing return-to-work programs for light-duty workers can save businesses and their workers’ comp insurers money, time and productivity in the long run.
Estes denied PTD benefits, stating that Gillispie’s light-duty work restrictions proved he was capable of employment and did not qualify for PTD. The employer said that in contrast to TTD, PTD can be awarded “only after consideration of [Gillispie’s] ability to earn wages in any employment for which the worker is suited and reasonably fit” has been determined.
At the time of trial, Gillispie was under a temporary ten-pound work restriction and awaiting neck surgery. The Workers’ Compensation Commission said these temporary restrictions prevented the worker from doing light-duty assignments due to light work involving up to 20 pounds of lifting. The commission argued Gillispie could not return to work yet.
Further, the commission pointed to a workers’ comp ruling that stated PTD can only be attached to a claim after the percentage of permanent disability from the injury had been adjudicated and the worker had reached maximum medical improvement (MMI). When a worker has exhausted their 104-week allotment of TTD, PTD benefits can be collected if the worker has not reached MMI.
Gillispie had yet to reach his MMI. Additionally, the court said that “a determination of PTD during the healing period is not a final adjudication of permanent disability, but rather a temporary determination of a claimant’s compensation status.”
Estes was found liable for PTD compensation.
Scorecard: Following a serious work injury, Oneal Gillispie will receive permanent total disability benefits from his employer Estes Express Lines Inc.
Takeaway: Evaluating and establishing return-to-work programs for light-duty workers can save businesses and their workers’ comp insurers money, time and productivity in the long run. &