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When Is a Tennessee Worker Entitled to “Permanent Total Disability” Benefits?


Tennessee’s workers’ compensation system provides different levels of benefits depending on the extent of an employee’s injuries. In addition to covering your medical expenses arising from an on-the-job injury, workers’ compensation also entitles you to partial replacement of any lost wages. And in severe cases where an injury renders you unable to return to work at all, you may be entitled to “permanent total disability” benefits.

Court Affirms Award of Permanent Benefits to Disabled Janitor

Employers are not eager to pay for permanent disability benefits and therefore frequently litigate such claims. A recent case decided by the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court illustrates the difficulties that permanently disabled employees face in asserting their legal right to collect benefits.

The employee in this case worked as a custodian for a municipal government. The employee “stepped off a 15 to 18-inch step” at the building where he was working, injuring his left foot. As required by state workers’ compensation law, the employee immediately reported the injury to his supervisor. The employee continued to work for the next two weeks, but he eventually sought medical treatment for swelling in the injured foot.

In fact, the injury was much more serious than initially thought. The employee experienced “excruciating” pain in the foot even after a physician placed it in a cast. The treating physician eventually recommended that the employee undergo surgery. But the surgery “only increased the employee’s pain,” and a second surgery was necessary to remove a damaged nerve.

While the second surgery reduced the pain to a “constant” level, the employee still was unable to walk without crutches. A number of specialists examined the employee and an expert in pain management eventually diagnosed him with “complex regional pain syndrome.” This required another surgery. Post-surgery there were additional issues: The employee suffered a stroke and was hospitalized following a suicide attempt.

Meanwhile, the employee’s custodial position was eliminated. The employee briefly found a new job working at a manufacturing plant, but his employment ended after four days when he could not stand due to the swelling in his foot.

At a workers’ compensation hearing against the employee’s original municipal employer, a vocational expert testified that the employee was “100 percent disabled” based on the physical and mental health diagnoses of his doctors. The judge agreed and awarded the employee permanent total disability benefits.

The employer appealed, but the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel upheld the trial judge’s decision. The employer pointed to testimony from one of the employee’s doctors, who suggested he might be able to resume full-time work if he received hourly breaks. But the Appeals Panel noted the employee’s inability to work at the manufacturing plant for more than a few days—and his subsequent lack of any employment—demonstrated that he was “unable to work” at all due to his earlier work-related injury. Furthermore, the vocational expert testified at trial that given the employee’s present medical condition, “there were no reasonable employment opportunities available to [the employee] in the local labor market.”

Get Help From a Knoxville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer

If you have suffered a workplace injury that leaves you permanently unable to return to work, it may take you several years to successfully pursue a workers’ compensation claim. This is not something you should attempt on your own. If you need help from an experienced Tennessee workers’ compensation attorney, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville today.



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