IA Construction v. WCAB – Discretion of Workers’ Comp. Judge

Workers’ compensation claims in North Carolina are considered by the state industrial commission. A disagreement regarding a decision from a single commissioner will go before the full commission. A disagreement at that level can be appealed to the state appeals court and then, if necessary, to the state supreme court. gaveljan

But those appellate judges generally do not try to reweigh all the evidence. That’s the job of the commission, which has a great deal of discretion in deciding how much credibility to assign to which witnesses. The appeals courts are usually only concerned with whether the commission and/or lower courts abused discretion or misapplied the law. This same general schema is present in most state workers’ compensation systems.

In the recent case of IA Construction v. WCAB, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked whether the appeals court was wrong to reverse the industrial commission on the basis that it had given improper weight to one of employer’s expert witnesses. 

According to court records, plaintiff in 2005 suffered injury in a motor vehicle accident while in the course and scope of his employment as a construction worker. Claimant filed a petition for workers’ compensation benefits. The workers’ compensation judge granted the request, finding plaintiff had suffered work-related injuries that included traumatic brain injury with organic affective changes, ongoing cognitive problems, memory impairment, post-traumatic headaches, vertigo, neck and back injuries.

Several years later, the employer moved to set a permanent impairment rating, to determine whether it would be required to pay permanent total disability benefits or permanent partial disability benefits.

To support its position that it should only be required to pay partial disability benefits, employer presented the testimony from a medical doctor who had both examined plaintiff and reviewed his medical records. The doctor confirmed the traumatic brain injury, the back injury and spinal injury resulting in problems walking. The doctor opined these together resulted in a 34 percent dysfunction. Per that state’s law, any impairment rating under 50 percent allows for partial disability benefits – not total.

The doctor also determined plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement.

At the hearing before the judge, the claimant did not testify, nor did he present any counter evidence.

The workers’ compensation judge was first critical of the fact the doctor did not take into account the many other conditions the initial workers’ compensation commission decision. Beyond that, she noted the doctor had not taken into account the significant portion of claimant’s impairment rating that was pointed to cognitive issues. Thus, she saw the doctor’s review of plaintiff’s cognitive abilities as one that was unfairly limited. Also, the doctor’s specialty was pain management and physical pain – not neurology.

Therefore, the workers’ compensation judge declined the employer’s request and granted total disability benefits. On appeal, the commission affirmed in a divided opinion.

The appeals court, however, reversed, finding the workers’ compensation judge had misjudged the doctor’s credibility.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding it was not the role of the appeals court to reweigh the evidence and that it was within the discretion of the workers’ compensation judge and panel to consider the appropriate weight of testimony and evidence.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

IA Construction v. WCAB, May 25, 2016, Pennsylvania Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

OSHA to Create Workplace Injury Database to Encourage Better Reporting of Danger, May 25, 2016, North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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