“Wind” Will This Ever End?

As we recently celebrated the 4th of July with family and friends, we must not lose sight of the Founding Fathers and formation of the Constitution. Interestingly, John Hancock was the only one to sign on July 4, 1776, while the others signed at a later date. We are fortunate that the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution to incorporate a judicial system that allows people the opportunity to be heard as that luxury does not exist in many other places in the world. Often, the higher courts will have to decide issues from the lower courts to interpret a statute, applicability of the law, admissibility of evidence, etc. The workers’ compensation laws are subject to the same scrutiny as any other law or statute.

 

The Workers’ Compensation Act and system was created to provide a quick and efficient resolution to injured workers and the ability through the administrative courts to avoid the long delays that could ensue in the trial courts. Ironically, workers’ compensation claims can be tied up in litigation much longer than the trial courts which was not the intent of the legislature. While the hope and intent are clear, due to the many nuances and different interpretation of the workers’ compensation laws, there will continue to be disputes that arise.

 

While different in each state, workers’ compensation medical benefits are subject to a fee schedule set by the legislature. By statute, a medical provider could not collect payment for medical expenses beyond those paid by the plaintiff’s workers’ compensation insurer. The intent (hopefully) is to have a level playing field and no disputes over what fee is to be charged to avoid any delay to the injured worker for medical care.

 

Plain and simple, the cost for a medical benefit under a workers’ compensation claim is subject to a set fee by the legislature regardless of what the provider may charge outside of the system for the same service. This also, for policy reasons, provides some relief to the carriers given the volume of workers’ compensation claims. They will not be burdened with extreme medical costs providing medical benefits to claimants as medical providers are limited to the amounts under the fee schedule.

 

With that said, in May of this year the Colorado Court of Appeals rendered an opinion that focused on the admissibility of past medical expenses when the claimant/plaintiff is injured on the job and sues the third-party tortfeasor. The Court considered whether “billed” medical expenses versus what was actually “paid” were to be considered by the court and jury in awarding damages to a claimant/plaintiff. Before trial, the defendant had extinguished the insurer’s subrogation interest in the amounts paid by paying off the insurer’s claim for those damages.

 

The case was brought before the Court based on claimant/plaintiff’s appeal that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of the amounts “billed” by his medical providers and only admitted the amounts “paid” by the carrier for his medical care and treatment. The Court was to determine whether billed versus paid medical benefits were permitted in a third-party lawsuit.

The Court held:

  • The collateral source rule barred admissibility of the medical expenses paid by the workers’ compensation carrier.
  • The plaintiff could present evidence at trial of the higher i.e. “billed” medical expenses by the providers.

 

Briefly, claimant worked for United Airlines (“United”) and was struck by an employee of Delta Airlines (“Delta”) at Denver International Airport – both were driving similar luggage tug vehicles. Claimant’s injuries were in the course and scope of employment, therefore, admitted and his indemnity and medical benefits were paid by his employer pursuant to statute.

 

Claimant’s employer sought reimbursement and sued Delta and its at-fault driver. Claimant sued the same defendants to recover for his personal injuries related to his work injury. United’s claim against Delta was settled for $328,799.16 and the case was dismissed with prejudice leaving only claimant and Delta as parties. Delta admitted liability but disputed claimant’s claimed damages so the case went to trial. At the first trial, claimant was awarded $1.5 million but a new trial was granted due to misconduct by claimant’s attorney.

 

At the second trial (which interestingly was a bench trial), plaintiff was not allowed to provide evidence of the higher “billed” amounts from the providers for medical expenses but only the amounts actually “paid” by the employer. The plaintiff was awarded $259,176 in damages of which $194,426 was for economic damages. The court subsequently entered an order to set-off claimant’s economic damages by the amount defendant had paid to settle the workers’ compensation claim. Plaintiff argued this was not fair since his award for economic damages was reduced to zero.

 

The injured worker appealed. In its decision, the Court ruled that the collateral source rule applied to workers’ compensation benefits. The collateral source rule, or collateral source doctrine, is an American case law evidentiary rule that prohibits the admission of evidence that the plaintiff or victim has received compensation from some source other than the damages sought against the defendant. In Colorado, the first component requires a trial court to set off tort verdicts by the amount of certain collateral source payments received by the plaintiff unless the payments were made because of a contract entered into and paid for on the plaintiff’s behalf. § 13-21-111.6, C.R.S. 2018. The second component bars evidence of a plaintiff’s receipt or entitlement to benefits received from a collateral source, most often an insurance company, “because such evidence could lead the fact-finder to improperly reduce the plaintiff’s damages award on the grounds that the plaintiff already recovered his loss from the collateral source. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Crossgrove, 276 P.3d 562 (Colo. 2012).

 

The Court noted that “even though claimant did not personally pay premiums toward his workers’ compensation insurance, he gave consideration for the same in the form of his employment services.” Van Waters & Rogers, Inc. v. Keelan, 840 P.2d 1070, 1074 (Colo. 1992). The same holds true to the defendant, who did not contribute in any way to the premiums paid to him and, therefore, the benefits paid were wholly collateral to the defendant. Therefore, the collateral source rule applies, and the defendant may be responsible for plaintiff’s damages regardless of what was paid by the workers’ compensation carrier. “The Court rationalized this will prevent a wrongdoer from reaping the benefits of a contract to which he is not a party.” The National Law Review, Colorado Court of Appeals Permits Evidence of Billed Workers’ Compensation Benefits at Trial.

 

In further reasoning of its decision, the Court acknowledged the workers’ compensation statute provides that amounts billed in excess of the statutory fee schedule are “unlawful, void, and unforceable.” This statutory language effectively prevents the plaintiff, as a matter of law, from having any legal obligation to pay such billed amounts. The Court cited a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court that stated, “the fact a bill is uncollectable does not render it entirely irrelevant to the reasonable value of the medical services provided.” Volunteers of America v. Gardenswartz, 242 P.3d 1080 (Colo. 2010).

 

There was a dissenting opinion issued by the Court which identifies the effect this ruling will have for claims in the future. “To allow injured workers to pursue expenses against the defendant in excess of what workers’ compensation already paid for his/her injuries contravenes the intent and purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act. In part, this now affords the injured worker a windfall which the Act was not designed to do.” The dissenting opinion also makes note that the court is in the position of enforcing unenforceable contracts since the billed amounts are void and unenforceable based on the fee schedule specific to workers’ compensation claims.

 

The opinion of the Court has certainly created a stir as it now essentially creates a windfall in favor of the injured worker and settlement with workers’ compensation carriers before trial essentially meaningless.

 

We will wait to see if the Court’s decision is brought before the Colorado Supreme Court for further review and determination of this now complicated, and to be highly debated, topic.

Helmet to Helmet

It’s hard to believe that the 2018 NFL football season is coming to an end soon with Super Bowl LIII. And for the 16th time in 18 years a quarterback named Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. This will be the 9th appearance for Patriot’s Quarterback Tom Brady while the Ram’s Quarterback Jared Goff makes his first appearance. The old vs. the new.

While we are indulging in hot wings, pizza, and libations at various Super Bowl parties, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that injuries to professional athletes fall under workers’ compensation insurance. Since these players are performing their job duties and, unlike amateur athletes, they are employees.

Professional football requires two types of insurance: general liability and workers’ compensation since it is mandatory under state laws. Given the lucrative contracts these athletes sign, the Collective Bargaining Agreements often require wage continuation agreements so that these athletes continue to make the same salary if they are injured and off work. Can you imagine an athlete who makes $30 million a year being capped at the state workers’ compensation rate while recovering from an injury? Hence why wage continuation agreements are standard across the league.

With that said, one of the biggest threats to the NFL is the evaporating insurance market. According to multiple sources from the NFL, there is only one carrier willing to provide workers’ compensation coverage for NFL teams because of all the concussion litigation that began in 2011. At that time, at least a dozen carriers occupied the insurance market for pro football. Now, there is one.  Dr. Julian Bales, Medical Director and member of the NFL’s head, neck, and spine committee told ESPN “insurance coverage is arguably the biggest threat to the sport.”[1]

A study done by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports concussion program found approximately 300,000 football-related concussions occur each year in youth, high school, college, and professional. And the biggest injury or disease that is making headlines in the NFL is traumatic brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy or “C.T.E.” The problem with this disease is the unknown “trigger” on how and when the disease starts. The disease is diagnosed after death and the symptoms of depression and delusional behavior may lay dormant for years, or even decades, before they surface. It’s concerning for carriers to know they could be on the hook years down the road given the unknown.

Similar to asbestos claims in workers’ compensation, a carrier can be at risk for a claimant who works one day and is subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer, players in California could file claims, even if they played only one game, to allege their brain disorders were caused by the sport. This cost carriers and the leagues hundreds of millions of dollars which fortunately was curtailed by new legislation in 2013. Still, carriers are cautious to cover the NFL without an exclusion for head trauma.

For many years carriers insured the NFL without restrictions for traumatic brain injuries. Now many of these companies are in a six-year lawsuit with the NFL over who will pay legal fees and claims associated with the 2013 settlement of the $1 billion-dollar class action lawsuit. Hence, these carriers are at higher risk to insure the NFL.

California has one of the most liberal workers’ compensation laws in the Union. Recently, former players who decades ago reached injury settlements with NFL teams and carriers have filed new claims alleging their settlements did not cover traumatic brain injuries. In 2015, a workers’ compensation court found that a former player’s 1989 settlement for cumulative industrial injury “does not extend to the then-unknown cumulative injury to the brain.” Similar to a worker who claims their shoulder pain is due to years of lifting heavy equipment, a former football player can argue their continued migraine headaches are a result of them playing professional football. Chances are several brain disorders like dementia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could be blamed on football. Doctors may ask, “how long did you play football and how many head injuries did you have?” and cite that as the cause for a claimant’s brain disorder when a claim against the NFL is filed. Fortunately, claimants must still meet their burden and prove that pro football alone, and not youth or college football, was the “cause” of their injury or diseases.

Workers’ compensation attorneys in California are handling numerous settled cases in which former NFL players have filed new claims for head trauma. The new claims will only increase costs for litigation and further deter carriers on what they will and will not cover. Fortunately, monetary costs for workers’ compensation claims are capped which will help put a cork in the damn but if the floodgate of old settled claims are allowed to be reopened, the market for coverage will continue to be washed away down the river…

As always, if you have any questions regarding workers’ compensation insurance and laws, please contact one of the attorneys at Lee & Brown, LLC.

 

[1] http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/25776964/insurance-market-football-evaporating-causing-major-threat-nfl-pop-warner-colleges-espn

BECAUSE IT GOES TO 11

It is hard to believe that the holiday season is here and, with that, 2019 will soon be upon us. 2019 Rule 11 revisionsWith the New Year, several changes and updates to the Workers’ Compensation Rules of Procedure will take place. One rule that will have significant changes and impact on the system is Rule 11, which pertains to the DIME process.

The DIME program has seen little change since its inception in 1991, yet it is an essential piece of the Colorado Workers’ Compensation system. There have been attempts throughout the years to change the procedures from both respondent’s and claimant’s bars but to no avail. After three years of collaboration and tedious consideration, the Division of Workers’ Compensation has finally adopted a new rule that will address key challenges of each stakeholder. This is due in part to weekly staff meetings with representatives from both sides of the bar commenting on the changes and individual meetings with each side of the bar. There were over 50 revisions to Rule 11 and a Public Rule Hearing held for additional comment.

 

Effective January 1, 2019, these revisions and changes to Rule 11 will take place. Several key changes to the Rule:

     

    • There will now be a three-tiered payment system based on the date of injury to the filing of the DIME application and the number of body regions indicated on the DIME application;
    •  
    • The DIME physician must receive the fee prior to the requesting party scheduling the DIME appointment;
    •  
    • The Notice and Proposal and DIME Application are now combined as one document;
    •  
    • The time-frame to schedule a DIME appointment is extended to no earlier than 45 days or later than 75 days after the requesting party receives the notice of the DIME Physician Confirmation; and
    •  
    • Parties will now be responsible for agreeing on a singular medical records packet to send to the DIME physician.

     

 

The Division Rule will go into place January 1st, but the Division has indicated there will be some leniency the first month to sort out compliance issues. By February the Division will be enforcing the new process. Any Notice and Proposal with a certificate of mailing dated on or after January 1, 2019 is subject to the new Rule 11 provisions.

 

One provision of the Rule that will be advantageous for respondents is the requirement that once a Notice and Proposal is filed, claimant must simultaneously file a DIME application. With the current Rule 11 provision, claimant could file a Notice and Proposal to perfect their jurisdictional requirement to object to the Final Admission of Liability but could wait on filing for a DIME. Sometimes it would be months, or even close to a year, before a DIME application was filed and physician selected. Hopefully, the new Rule 11 revisions will bring a speedier DIME process and claim resolution/closure.

 

One negative effect of the new Rule is that parties are now to agree on one set of medical records to be sent to the DIME physician. This could create more litigation as claimants may not want to provide certain records, but respondents may feel they should be included in the medical packet. A standoff could require pre-hearings to adjudicate the matter. This is likely why the Division extended the time requirement to 45 – 75 days so that parties have time to reach an agreement on the medical records submitted and additional time to set the DIME appointment.

 

With these changes to Rule 11, there will be a lot of questions that need to be addressed. The attorneys at Lee & Brown, LLC are here to answer any questions you may have regarding the new changes to Rule 11 and will be conducting training seminars “on our DIME” early next year to go over all these changes. Below are some helpful links from the Division of Workers’ Compensation which provides general DIME information and new timelines to consider.

 

https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/DIME_Presentation_2019.pdf

 

https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Important_DIME_Timelines_2019.pdf

 

https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/General_DIME_Fee_Information.pdf