Injured Worker in PA Entitled to Reinstatement of Workers’ Comp Benefits When Earnings Again Lost Due to Work Injury

Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, as that set of laws has been interpreted by Courts in Pennsylvania, there has been some confusion regarding when an injured worker can be reinstated to total disability workers’ compensation benefits. For example, an injured worker who returns to light duty work with the pre-injury employer, and is later laid off from the light duty job, is entitled to a reinstatement to total workers’ comp benefits. However, the question remained whether the same injured worker would lose this ability to obtain reinstatement if he or she leaves the pre-injury employer (like for a better or higher paying job).

This situation was faced squarely in Bufford v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (North American Telecom), decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on August 17, 2010. In this case, the injured worker returned to light duty work with the pre-injury employer. He then left the pre-injury employer for a higher paying, less physical, job with another employer. A few years later, Mr. Bufford was laid off from the new employer.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) denied the Petition to Reinstate Benefits, finding that Mr. Bufford failed to prove there was a change (a worsening) in his condition, and his loss in earnings stemmed solely from economic reasons (rather than related to his disability). The WCJ even recognized the case would be different if the injured worker had remained at work with the pre-injury employer. On appeal, both the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the decision.

In a refreshing opinion, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania lent some sanity, logic and compassion to the equation. In reversing the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court found it absurd that the injured worker should be punished simply for seeking better employment. The Court clarified the injured worker’s burden of proof in a Petition to Reinstate is simply to prove that his earning power is again affected by his work injury, and that his work-related disability continues. The burden then shifts to the workers’ compensation insurance carrier to prove that the loss in earnings is not caused by the work injury. There was no requirement that the injured worker prove a change, or worsening, in his condition.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the injured worker here met his burden. The workers’ compensation insurance carrier then failed to carry its burden opposing reinstatement. Specifically, the defendant failed to prove the claimant showed “bad faith” by rejecting available work. As such, the Court found the reinstatement must be granted.