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Missouri high court's disability ruling goes against case law

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The Missouri Supreme Court's ruling that an injured worker can collect temporary total disability benefits despite achieving maximum medical improvement goes against “years of case law,” an observer says.

In February 2006, Carl Greer sustained a crush injury to his left foot while working as a forklift operator for Sysco Food Services of St. Louis L.L.C., his employer for nearly 20 years, court records show. The accident occurred after his scanner gun malfunctioned, leading him to extend his left leg outside the running lines of his stationary forklift to scan a pallet. Meanwhile, a co-employee operating another forklift drove by and snagged Mr. Greer's foot, crushing it between the two machines.

A physician said Mr. Greer achieved maximum medical improvement in April 2007 and sustained a 5% permanent partial disability of his left ankle due to a limited range of motion, according to records. Mr. Greer attempted to return to work several times but ultimately resigned his employment in November 2007.

Though a pain management specialist declined to recommend further treatment due to a “strong likelihood” that Mr. Greer's subjective complaints were disproportionate to objective medical findings, Mr. Greer did engage in other treatments, including tarsal tunnel release surgery in June 2010, records show. However, his pain didn't subside.

An administrative law judge for Missouri's Labor and Industrial Relations Commission in July 2013 found that Mr. Greer had reached maximum medical improvement and wasn't entitled to temporary total disability benefits beyond April 2007, according to records. The judge also said Mr. Greer wasn't permanently and totally disabled, but that he was permanently and partially disabled as a result of the work-related accident.

Affirming most of the judge's findings, the commission in March 2014 determined that Mr. Greer was entitled to an additional award of temporary total disability benefits and for past medical expenses that were overlooked in the record, court documents show.

Both Sysco and Mr. Greer appealed, and the Missouri Court of Appeals sustained Mr. Greer's application for transfer to the state Supreme Court.

In an en banc ruling last week, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission's decision.

“While not common, courts have awarded a claimant two separate periods of (temporary total disability) benefits stemming from the same work-related injury, even in instances in which the claimant has been declared to be at maximum medical improvement,” the ruling states.

According to the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations' website, temporary total disability may be awarded to injured workers if they are unable to return to work due to an occupational injury or are off work recovering from a surgery.

It goes on to say that “(temporary total disability) benefits should be continued until the doctor says that you can return to work or when your treatment is concluded because your condition has reached 'maximum medical improvement,' whichever occurs first.”

“Tossing out years of case law, the (state) Supreme Court is telling the commission it no longer has to rely on a doctor's determination that a claimant has reached the point of maximum medical improvement when deciding a claim for (temporary total disability) benefits, opening the door for possible abuse of the state's workers compensation system,” Brian Bunten, general counsel for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jefferson City, said in an email. “We look forward to working with the General Assembly to fix this problem in the upcoming legislative session.”