As we explained in a recent blog entry, under the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Act, Section 440(a) to be exact, reasonable attorney fees are to be paid by the PA workers’ compensation insurance carrier, unless the workers’ comp insurance carrier proves it had a reasonable basis to contest the claim. By design, this was to be the rule; the exception would be when attorney fees were charged to the injured worker.
Unfortunately, this is not how things work in practice. In Costa v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Carlisle Corp.), decided by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on October 14, 2008, the workers’ comp insurance carrier was found to have a reasonable basis to contest a claim when their own doctor agreed a work injury had taken place.
How could the Court accomplish such a feat, you ask? Well, the workers’ compensation insurance carrier’s doctor felt the injured worker had suffered a neck strain, while the injured worker’s doctor felt he had herniated a disc in the cervical spine (this would help explain why the injured worker had neck surgery after the work injury). Thus, the Court felt that because the parties’ medical experts disagreed what diagnoses were related to the work injury, the workers’ comp insurance carrier had a reasonable basis to contest the injury.
From our position, as lawyers who represent injured workers in PA, the decision by the Court seems completely unfair. There was no dispute a work injury took place, yet the Court says the fact that the claim was entirely denied was “reasonable.” This, unfortunately, sends a bad message to employers and workers’ compensation insurance companies in Pennsylvania, stating loud and clear that denial of claims can generally be done without any cost or retribution to the employer or the workers’ comp insurance carrier. Is this the message we want sent while injured workers lie in the hospital beds, unable to work, without any income?