“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.