Colorado’s workers’ compensation subrogation statute, located at S 8–41–203, C.R.S., is poorly worded and has become more complex through legislative revisions over the years. At its heart, the statute allows payment of compensation under the Colorado Workers’ Compensation Act to operate as an assignment of a cause of action against another person or entity “not in the same employ” whose negligence or wrong produced injury or death for which benefits are paid. The right of subrogation applies to all compensation including medical, hospital, dental, funeral and other benefits. The assigned and subrogated case includes the right to recover future benefits. It extends to money collected from the third party that produced injury for all economic damages, physical impairment and disfigurement. The assigned and subrogated cause of action does not extend to money collected for non-economic damages awarded to the injured worker for pain and suffering, inconvenience, emotional stress or impairment of quality of life.
People familiar with workers’ compensation subrogation are aware of judicial apportionment between the injured worker and the carrier. Further, the carrier is responsible for any prorated share of fees and costs the injured worker incurred in obtaining a settlement or judgment from the third-party, should the carrier elect to not pursue the matter on its own. This can lead to significant uncertainty for the carrier in trying to determine whether to pursue the third-party on its own or come to an agreement with the injured worker for a percentage of gross or net recovery. In most circumstances the workers’ compensation case is open and moving forward while the third-party case is pending, whether filed or not. What to do with the third-party case is a complicated, multifaceted decision-making process; however, at least in some circumstances, the decision can be simplified by selling the recovery rights (although not technically a lien, I will refer to it as a lien in this article) to the defendant in the third-party case.
LIEN SALE EXAMPLE
I recently had a case where sale of the lien made sense. The injured worker’s claim had been closed by settlement. Therefore, the total amount of potential recovery was known. The case involved a car accident where the injured worker was hurt in a rear-end collision. The total amount of insurance to cover the loss and liability of the negligent driver was also clear. The injured worker was pursuing the negligent driver in the third-party case and the workers’ compensation carrier elected to not bring its own cause of action. In settlement discussions in the third party case, it was clear that the negligent driver’s carrier would offer little or nothing to settle the case despite clear liability. The third-party carrier was willing to go to trial over causation of injuries that were largely compensated under the workers’ compensation system. Given these circumstances, I spoke directly to counsel for the injured worker to try to broker a deal on a percentage of potential recovery. We could not come to an agreeable percentage. I advised counsel for the injured worker that I was in discussions with the negligent driver’s carrier to have it buy my carrier’s lien. Since I could not come to an agreement with the injured worker’s attorney, I simply sold my client’s subrogation lien to the defendant in the third-party case. This guaranteed recovery for my client. The third-party case went to trial and the injured worker recovered no damages. The defendant in the third-party case submitted trial briefs asserting some set-off against potential damages based on the lien it purchased. The trial court held off any determination of a set-off. In the workers’ compensation case we had paid approximately $100,000, split evenly between medical and indemnity benefits. We sold the lien for $30,000. At issue before the trial court in the trial briefs was the value of the purchased lien. Was the purchased lien worth $100,000 set-off against billed medical, lost wages and permanent impairment claimed as damages in the third-party case? In the alternative, was the lien worth $30,000 as some undivided lump sum that can be set-off against all awarded damages? It is clear why the trial judge elected to not answer these questions, but let the jury come back with a decision on damages. The trial judge would have a difficult time figuring out what the defendant purchased from the workers’ compensation carrier and what it was worth. The jury saved the trial judge that headache since they found liability, but no damages. Regardless of the trial judge’s ultimate conclusion, my client’s had successfully recouped 30% of their lien and halted their exposure for on-going litigation expenses.
RAMIFICATIONS OF THE SALE
Counsel for the injured worker tried mightily to argue that respondents should reimburse the injured worker out of the $30,000 sale proceeds to account for its share of attorney fees and costs in the unsuccessful attempt to recover against third-party. Counsel for the injured worker was unsuccessful in all of his attempts. There was simply no legal basis to require the workers’ compensation carrier to pay for a share of unsuccessful litigation by the injured worker. That stated there is an appeal to the argument that it is unfair for the workers’ compensation carrier that did not actively participate in the negligent third-party case, to derive benefit from selling its lien without paying for the work done in the third-party case, even though it was unsuccessful.
Sale of the workers’ compensation lien is a viable option of recovery for respondents holding a subrogation lien; nevertheless, sale of the lien should only be done in certain circumstances. Sale of the lien when the workers’ compensation case is still open would not be recommended. Sale of the lien, for practical purposes, reduces any amount that could be used to settle the third-party case. This makes it more likely that that case will go to trial where the lien value will be used against the injured worker. This is not a good position for the workers’ compensation carrier. The workers’ compensation carrier still has obligations to claimant under the workers compensation system and in an open workers’ compensation case it should probably not sell its lien to the defendant in the third party case.
As a result of the lien sale in my specific case, there are rumblings in the claimant/plaintiff bar that they may try legislatively to prevent the sale of liens generated from workers’ compensation cases. As of now, no such legislation has been introduced.
We always recommend discussing this legal strategy with your counsel prior to embarking on this path. Whether the sale of a subrogation lien is viable depends largely on the specific facts of each case.