Worker’s Compensation Jury Awards

Maryland has a comprehensive set of laws that govern claims for worker’s compensation, which provide benefits for employees who sustain an injury or develop an illness as a result of their occupation. The rules are complex and there is an entire area of law devoted to how such claims are resolved by the Worker’s Compensation Commission which is charged with resolving such claims. Part of the process can include a jury trial, the procedure of which was recently reviewed by Maryland’s highest court in the case of Maldonado v. American Airlines.

As the Court’s opinion explains, among the awards for benefits the Worker’s Compensation Commission can make are awards of compensation at various levels of permanent disability, and which level an employee falls in determines the level of benefits received for that permanent disability. The issue on a claim for permanent partial disability is the percentage of industrial loss of the employee, or the percentage by which the industrial or work related use of the covered employee’s body has been impaired.

The law specifies two types of permanent impairment for worker’s compensation purposes. There is a list of scheduled members, a specific list of body parts and assigned percentages related to disability for work related injuries to those areas of the body. There is also a category of “other cases” which do not fit neatly in to the schedule, which includes back injuries. The factors the law prescribes for determining percentage impairment are the nature of the disability (including certain medical factors), and characteristics of that employee (age, experience, occupation and training).

In this case, the opinion describes Maldonado as an airline employee who for over fourteen years worked loading and deicing aircraft, when he injured his back. He also claimed psychiatric injury as a result of the back injury. The Commission found that he had a 50% permanent partial disability under “other cases,” which put him into the highest tier of permanent partial awards. The employer and its insurer appealed and requested a jury trial. At the trial, the jury was told of the Commission’s award and that there is a presumption that it is correct, so that the employer has the burden of proving the award should have been something different.

The employer called Maldonado to the stand to prove the details about him, such as age and experience. It then called a psychiatrist and an orthopedic doctor, who put his percentage disability at well below the level found by the Commission. The employee countered with a psychologist and medical doctor as his expert witnesses. The jury then found that the correct percentage disability was 35%, which would place the employee’s level of benefits at a lower tier. The employee appealed, arguing that in such a case the employer has to call a vocational expert to testify regarding ability to perform work in order to meet its burden of proof.

The Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s verdict, holding that it is not necessary in every such case to call a vocational expert. It held that there was sufficient medical evidence and factual information on this employee to allow the jury to make an informed decision. This case illustrates the complexities which worker’s compensation cases can involve.