Can I Receive Permanent Disability Benefits If I Am Unable to Return to Work?
There are multiple kinds of workers’ compensation benefits available under Tennessee law. If an on-the-job accident leaves you with a permanent impairment but you are still able to work in some capacity, a workers’ compensation judge will award you permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits. But if you are unable to return to any kind of “gainful employment,” you may receive permanent total disability (PTD) benefits instead.
Judge Cites “Expert” Testimony in Rejecting Total-Disability Status
Whether an injured worker is eligible for PPD or PTD benefits depends on the facts of each given case. The Tennessee Supreme Court has identified some of these factors as relevant:
- the employee’s skills, training, and education;
- the employee’s age, i.e. how close they are to retirement;
- the available job opportunities in the employee’s community and surrounding area; and
- the availability of work that the employee can perform in spite of their disability or impairment.
Tennessee judges are often reluctant to award total-disability benefits when there is some evidence that an injured employee could still work. Oftentimes, this “evidence” comes in the form of testimony from vocational experts, who assess the disabled applicant’s situation using the factors cited above. If the worker cannot successfully challenge the expert’s conclusions with other evidence, the court is within its discretion to treat these opinions as fact.
Consider this recent decision by the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court. The plaintiff in this case is a 58-year-old man who worked in an automobile manufacturing plant for nearly 20 years. During his tenure, he suffered a number of on-the-job injuries and received workers’ compensation benefits.
At issue in this case is the plaintiff’s most recent injury, to his right shoulder, which occurred in 2014. The company agreed the injury was covered by workers’ compensation. But after the plaintiff’s doctor released him back to work under certain medical restrictions, the company said it had no available jobs that would meet those conditions. The plaintiff has therefore not worked at all since 2014.
Under the circumstances, the plaintiff applied for permanent total disability benefits. A workers’ compensation judge held the plaintiff was only eligible for permanent partial disability benefits, however, and the appeals panel affirmed that decision. The panel noted the plaintiff himself testified that he was still willing to “try to work,” but that did not address “the question of whether he actually has any potential vocational opportunities.” And the plaintiff’s doctor was no more helpful, according to the panel, as he simply answered “no” when asked if the plaintiff could still work without providing “any foundation or context.”
Ultimately, the appeals panel said the trial judge had to rely on the testimony of two vocational experts, who were divided on the issue of whether the plaintiff could work despite his restrictions. The judge decided to side with the expert who said the plaintiff could still work–and the appeals panel said it would not second-guess that call.
Speak With a Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Today
Every workers’ compensation case is different, because every plaintiff’s injuries and vocational status are unique. That is why it is critical to work with an experienced Clinton workers’ compensation attorney who understands how to investigate and build a compelling case for the courts. If you have been injured in a workplace accident and need legal advice on what to do next, call us today at 866-862-4855 to schedule a free consultation.