The 1996 amendments to the Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Act (Act 57) were largely a disaster for every worker in PA. Any thought that, as Pennsylvania’s appellate courts like to spout, the PA Workers’ Compensation Act is a piece of “remedial legislation” intended for “humanitarian purposes” and to “benefit the injured worker,” was clearly removed by Act 57.
One of the most ridiculous aspects of Act 57 was the creation of the Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE). As we have previously noted, once an injured worker has received 104 weeks of temporary total disability benefits, the workers’ compensation insurance carrier can request an IRE. As the Act itself states, in Section 306(a.2)(1), the IRE is used “to determine the degree of impairment due to the compensable injury, if any.” If this permanent impairment rating is less than 50% (a preposterously high standard), the status of the injured worker may be changed to “partial” disability status.
Now, logically, one can only have a permanent impairment rating if the impairment is, well, “permanent.” Our handy dictionary tells us that “permanent” means “lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely.” Therefore, again applying logic, if an injured worker has a “permanent” impairment, he or she cannot, at the very same time, be “fully recovered.”
A recent decision from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, however, defies logic and reason on more than one level. In Harrison v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Auto Truck Transport Corp.), the injured worker suffered an injury, which was accepted as an ankle sprain. An IRE was performed, which found the permanent impairment rating to be 13%. At the same time, a Petition for Termination was filed. The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) credited the doctor who performed the IRE and credited the doctor who said the injured worker was fully recovered, and granted the Termination Petition. This decision was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).
Upon further appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania also affirmed. Firstly, even though the Act specifically states that a permanent impairment rating can only include the work injury, and the IRE doctor issued a document stating that the permanent impairment rating was 13%, the Court dismissed any meaning to that number. In his report, and his deposition, the IRE doctor said the permanent impairment rating was based solely on NON-work-related conditions (the exact opposite of what the Act requires). In its infinite wisdom, the Court still found that the WCJ had sufficient basis to find such an opinion credible. Apparently, compliance with the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is merely suggested, as opposed to required, for witnesses offered by the workers’ compensation insurance carrier.
The Court went on to say that whether there is any impairment at all is irrelevant to whether a Termination can be granted. Citing existing case law, the Court found that the fact that “permanent impairment,” related to the work injury, could continue to exist, does not preclude the ability to grant a Termination (which, of course, requires a finding that the work injury has FULLY resolved). While this Court has indeed previously made such a decision, that fact does not help us logically understand how an injured worker can be both “permanently” impaired by a work injury AND fully recovered from the same injury at the same time.
Even though we are certified as specialists in the practice of workers’ compensation law, we have great difficulty reconciling the reasoning of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania with the PA Workers Compensation Act. Let alone, reconciling such a decision with concepts like fairness and justice. Is it too much to ask that law follow common logic, if not some element of human compassion?