Montana Supreme Court: Work Comp Not for Retired Workers

June 15, 2009

The Montana Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of three people who suffered permanently disabling injuries at work and are seeking to receive worker’s compensation benefits after they reach retirement age.

Jim Hunt, attorney for the three employees, pointed to an earlier Supreme Court ruling that said there was no rational basis for denying permanent partial disability benefits to injured workers based on their age. He said that the ruling should also apply to those who suffer permanent, total disability.

“The state of the law in Montana is absurd,” Hunt argued. “You get less (benefits) for more (injury), you get more for less. That’s not a rational situation, and we’re asking the court to repair that absurd situation.”

Brad Luck, a lawyer representing the Montana State Fund, which insures some 28,000 businesses against on-the-job injuries, told the court that workers’ compensation benefits are meant to compensate people based on their ability to participate in the labor market.

“When you’re retired, you’re not entitled to wage-loss benefits,” he said. The Legislature said, “we don’t want to have the work-comp, permanent total disability system to become a pension program.”

Hunt and co-counsel Tom Murphy of Great Falls, argue that many people over the age of 65 do work, but those who are permanently totally disabled are unable to do so.

State Fund analysts have said a ruling in favor of the injured workers could cost the fund anywhere from $230 million to $300 million in additional benefit payments and Montana businesses another $60 million a year in premiums.

Hunt argues those numbers are inflated because they assume the highest benefits possible over a woman’s average life span, which is about two years longer than a man’s, and that there is no way to estimate how many people would be entitled to the payments.

The state Workers Compensation Court ruled against Hunt and Murphy’s clients in December 2005, saying the Legislature has the power to limit benefits for permanently disabled workers and to say payments are not intended to be a “lifetime benefit.”

The injured workers appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which has not said when it will issue a ruling.

The lead plaintiff, 74-year-old Catherine Satterlee of Anaconda, attended Wednesday’s arguments.

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