The primary intention of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, back when it was enacted in 1915, was to create an income maintenance program. It was designed to achieve a humanitarian purpose, to benefit the injured worker in PA. Sometimes, the amount or frequency of workers’ comp benefits is called into question, and it is these basic ideas that must be considered in such a situation.
In Fields v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (City of Philadelphia), the injured worker, a prison guard, suffered a very severe injury to her left shoulder, arm,
wrist and hand while restraining an inmate. Through litigation of a Review Petition, the injury was expanded to include a partial tear of the left rotator cuff, a left brachial plexus traction injury and reflex sympathetic dystrophy [RSD] (now known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome [CRPS] of the left upper extremity.
Subsequently, another round of litigation awarded her 410 weeks of benefits for a “specific loss” of her left arm, and a 20-week healing period. “Specific loss” benefits are payable when the work injury results in the loss of use of a body part for all practical intents and purposes. Specific loss benefits are paid regardless of whether there is wage loss or not (a large departure from the general attitude of PA’s workers’ comp system, which is otherwise purely a “wage loss” system). This was followed a couple of years later by a finding that her injury had turned into specific losses of her left arm and both legs. This led to a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) awarding her 410 weeks of specific loss benefits for her right leg, 410 weeks of specific loss benefits for her left leg and a 25-week healing period.
The City of Philadelphia began to voluntarily pay the injured worker all three specific loss payments together, meaning the injured worker was receiving $1351.77 per week (three times her weekly disability rate of $450.59). At some point, the City of Philadelphia reduced the weekly payment to $450.59, and the injured worker filed (among other petitions not relevant to our discussion) a Petition for Penalties. The WCJ denied the Petition, finding that the injured worker could elect to receive specific loss benefits rather than Total Disability Benefits, but that these specific loss benefits, all resulting from the same work injury, should be paid consecutively, not concurrently. Thus, the WCJ concluded the payment of $450.59 per week was correct. This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board [WCAB] (the WCAB was split on the decision).
Upon further appeal, after noting the purpose of the Act was to provide income replacement, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, noted that “To that end, the preferred payment schedule is ‘regular income installments to the injured worker over a long period.'” Since the result of the injured worker’s desired payment schedule would yield a higher weekly rate, but over a shorter period of time, the Court found the payments being made by the City of Philadelphia, of the lower amount, better served the purposes of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act. In affirming the decision, the Court concluded, “because Claimant’s disabilities resulted from a single occurrence, her multiple specific losses should be aggregated pursuant to Section 306(c)(21) of the Act and paid consecutively.”