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Supreme Court Reinstates Award of PTD Benefit Plus Specific Loss for Same Accident

The Illinois Supreme Court recently awarded a petitioner benefits for statutory permanent total disability benefits associated with the complete loss of use of his legs plus additional benefits under Section (e) for permanent partial disability to other body parts arising from the same accident.

In Beelman Trucking v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, a truck driver was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. As a result, he suffered paralysis of both legs, the complete loss of use of his left arm and surgical amputation of his right arm above the elbow. The Commission had awarded statutory permanent total disability benefits pursuant to Section 8(e) (18) of the Act for complete loss of use of both of the employee’s legs. In addition, petitioner received an award for 235 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits for the complete loss of use of the left arm and 300 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits for the amputation of the right arm above the elbow concluded that petitioner would not be able to use a prosthetic arm. In addition, petitioner received an award for computer-related expenses associated with voice-activated software which he used to communicate primarily with family members over the internet as well as an amount for insurance premium for his handicapped modified van. The Circuit Court confirmed but the Appellate Court reversed. The Appellate Court determined that the Commission lacked authority to award benefits for both permanent partial disability for the arms under Section 8(e)(10) and permanent total disability pursuant to Section 8(e)(18) that result from the same accident.

On review, the Supreme Court analyzed Section 8(e)(18) of the Act which provides:

“The specific case of loss of both hands, both arms, or both feet, or both legs, or both eyes, or of any two thereof, or the permanent and complete loss of use thereof, constitutes total and permanent disability, to be compensated according to the compensation fixed by paragraph (f) of this Section. These specific cases of total and permanent disability do not exclude other cases.”

The employee had argued that the failure to award benefits for the amputation of his arms in addition to the permanent and total award associated with the complete loss of use of his legs would render him to be uncompensated for certain portions of his injury. The employer argued that the use of the words “total” and “permanent” must be given ordinary meaning such that the maximum amount of benefits an employee can receive for a single injury are limited to PTD benefits pursuant to Section 8(f).

The court reviewed its prior Decisions including Freeman United Coal Mining Co. v. Industrial Commission, 99 Ill.2d 487 (1984), in which an employee had received an award of total and permanent disability under Section 8(e)(18) and then returned to work. The employee then sustained another injury and sought permanent partial disability benefits related thereto. The court concluded that disability under Section 8(e)(18) is not inconsistent with the continuing ability to work and allowed for the employee to receive permanent disability benefits for the second injury. In Beelman, the court was required to interpret the last sentence of Section 8(e)(18) which states that “[t]hese specific cases of total and permanent disability do not exclude other cases.” The employee argued that the term “cases” refers to other instances of disability or injury. The employer argued that the term “cases” refers to other lawsuits or proceedings. The court noted that applying the synonym for the term case or “instance” or “example” made better sense and that the legislative intent was not to limit the petitioner’s recovery to Section 8(f) benefits for any particular injury where there was additional evidence of disability associated with the event.

The employer had also relied upon the decision in Arview v. Industrial Commission, 415 Ill.522 (1953). In Arview, the employee had suffered a prior loss of sight in his right eye and was involved in an electrocution wherein his legs and left arm were amputated. The employee argued that the employer was responsible to pay permanent total disability benefits. The employer argued that its liability was limited to compensation for the specific loss of one member and that the second injury fund would then be responsible for payment of the permanent total disability benefits. On appeal, the employee claimed that the employer should be obligated to pay for the specific loss of all three (3) amputated members. The question on appeal was whether or not the injured worker could chose to itemize his loss of members as opposed to a claim of permanent and total disability benefit under Section 8(f). The court concluded that the petitioner could not bypass Section 8(e)(18) in favor of itemizing all of his specific losses.

In Beelman, the court noted that a different question was posed. The petitioner was not seeking double recovery for the loss of use of his legs under Section 8(e)(18) and Section 8(12), but instead sought separate recovery under Section 8(e)(18) for his legs and under Section 8(e)(10) for the loss of use of his arms. The court then concluded that the award of permanent total disability benefits plus payment for the amputation of the arms was consistent with the Act’s purpose of providing financial protection to workers for work-related injuries consistent with the determination that the Act should be liberally construed to achieve that benefit.

The court also affirmed the award of the computer-related expenses and insurance premium for the van. With regard to the computer-related expenses, the treating physician had testified that the use of this device was important to petitioner’s mental health as he had lost almost complete use of his body and was totally dependent on others for movement activity. His physician had noted that the computer system provided his only vestige of autonomy. The court also noted the insurance premium award was limited to that portion of the insurance associated with the additional costs of insurance related to the modifications made to employee’s vehicle which were related to the injury. On that basis, the award of those expenses was not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.

This case presents an interesting issue as to how the permanent total and permanent partial benefits should be paid. Typically, permanent disability benefits accrue once the petitioner reaches MMI and is no longer entitled to temporary total disability and/or maintenance benefits. In this case, the permanent total disability benefits would be paid once the employee reached MMI. However, he is also entitled to permanent partial disability benefits at a rate of 60% of the average weekly wage for the statutory amputations of both arms. It appears the weekly liability for those benefits would run concurrently with the liability for the permanent total disability benefits and as such provide petitioner double benefit for over 500 weeks.

Obviously, the Supreme Court stretched the language in Section 8(e)(18) to achieve its desired result to provide the maximum benefit available to the worker who had suffered what was clearly a catastrophic injury. Otherwise, as the employer had conceded liability for the PTD benefits and had paid same up to trial, the petitioner’s attorney would have left with a $100 statutory attorney fee.

 

Originally published in the Summer 2009 edition of Quinn Quarterly.