Once an injured worker in Pennsylvania has an accepted work injury (whether by decision of a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), or the issuance of a Notice of Compensation Payable or Agreement for Compensation), such benefits can only be suspended for a limited number of reasons. A return to gainful employment, with no loss of wages, is obviously the most desirable reason. Other reasons can include incarceration after a conviction and proof of available employment at the pre-injury wages.
An additional reason, though rarely seen, is an intervening injury, not related to work, which renders the injured worker totally disabled. The case that first established this principle was Schneider, Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2000. This case involved a unique set of facts, and it was hoped the principle would be limited to facts so extreme.
The injured worker in the Schneider case was receiving benefits for a work injury involving his head and neck. He was then involved in a serious non-work-related incident which left him with severe brain damage and paralysis. A Petition for Suspension was granted, stopping the workers’ compensation benefits, without any requirement that the workers’ compensation insurance carrier show any jobs were available within the restrictions of the work injury. The WCJ found the opinion of the insurance carrier’s medical expert credible, that the injured worker was capable of some type of work (from the standpoint of the work-related injuries), though totally (and permanently) disabled by the non-work-related incident. The Court reasoned that it would be an “exercise in futility” to require the insurance company to show job availability, since the injured worker was totally disabled by a non-work-related cause.
Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania faced this issue in Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) v. WCAB. Here, the non-work-related incident caused much less significant injury than that in Schneider, but, importantly, the injured worker had been performing light duty work until the non-work-related incident took place. As in Schneider, the Suspension was granted, without any requirement of showing job availability. Though we certainly hope Schneider will be interpreted narrowly, and we cringe whenever it is cited by a Court, we do not necessarily see this as a dangerous expansion of Schneider. Here, the facts establish the reason the injured worker stopped doing his job was the non-work-related injury. In such a case, in all fairness, the conclusion made by the Commonwealth Court was not unreasonable.