Last week, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled Section 306 (a.2) of the Workers' Compensation Act unconstitutional, a landmark case with significant implications for injured workers across the Commonwealth.
The section in question allowed workers' compensation insurance carriers to secure an Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE) following the expiration of temporary total disability (TTD) benefits 104 weeks after a work injury. Under the former law, if the injured person were found less than 50% impaired, he or she would then be limited to receiving partial disability benefits for no more than 500 weeks - even if the injury were expected to last significantly longer.
According to Philadelphia workers' compensation attorney Richard A. Jaffe, the ruling takes a key weapon out of the insurance carriers' arsenal.
"Due to the way Section 306 (a.2) had been interpreted by the courts, insurance companies were effectively able to cap benefits for people with serious, long-term disabilities because they didn't clear the arbitrary 50% impairment threshold - which is the case for 95% of injured workers," said Jaffe. "500 weeks of benefits may sound like a long time, but when you're talking about people with injuries that will affect them for a lifetime, it's far from enough."
"We're returning to the older, much fairer system where the insurance carriers can only modify or terminate benefits either by showing that the injured person really can return to work - meaning they have to show a legitimate job offer or do a Labor Market Survey - or by petitioning a judge."
According to Jaffe, the implications for ongoing cases are not yet clear. "Injured workers with active IRE cases will have to be examined on a case-by-case basis in order to determine the best course of action," said Jaffe. "Depending on the circumstances, an attorney may be able to help you get your benefits reinstated or change your status to make you eligible for additional compensation. I'm currently reviewing dozens of case files to determine how my clients will be affected by this ruling, and my colleagues statewide are doing the same."
Jaffe urged workers who may be affected by the ruling to seek legal counsel.
"If you've previously had an IRE and your case is still active, you absolutely need to call a workers' compensation attorney today," he said. "If you have an IRE scheduled, don't attend. Call an attorney and protect your rights."