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A man who lost both of his feet after being electrocuted at work is entitled to permanent disability benefits despite finding an even higher-paying full-time job.
In Wasatch Electric Dynalectric Co. v. Labor Commission, a three-judge panel of the Utah Court of Appeals unanimously held on Thursday that the worker’s former employer must continue to pay benefits even though he has gainful employment.
Wendell Benward was working on a series of electrical power lines while employed by Wasatch Electric Dynalectric Co. when an electrical arc passed between a pole he was near and a nearby power line, electrocuting him. He survived the electrocution but sustained second- and third-degree burns over much of his body, meniscus tears in both knees, hearing loss, and lost both of his feet to amputation.
About a year later, Mr. Benward retrained and was able to work part-time for Wasatch as a safety manager and eventually was able to work full time in that capacity. While he was working part time, Mr. Benward continued to receive temporary partial disability benefits, and received permanent partial disability benefits when he returned to work full time based on a 49% whole person impairment rating, until he was laid off for unrelated reasons in 2017. In total, Benward paid nearly $131,000 in various types of workers comp benefits between the date of his accident and the date he was laid off.
After his layoff, he filed a claim for permanent total disability benefits based on the loss of both of his feet. However, he was able to find a job as a safety professional at an electrical engineering firm and his weekly wage is higher than what he earned at Wasatch.
Wasatch Electric contended that it should not have to pay Mr. Benward permanent total disability benefits for the time periods in which he was able to work, and argued that he was not entitled to those benefits since he was again capable of gainful employment.
An administrative judge ruled in favor of Wasatch, determining that Mr. Benward’s injury created only a “presumptive finding” that he was permanently and totally disabled, which was rebutted by the fact that he had returned to work. Mr. Benward appealed the decision to the Utah Workers Compensation Commission, which reversed the ALJ’s finding, holding that the “unique criteria” in state statutes provide for a final award of permanent total disability without consideration for interim work.
The commission remanded the case back to the administrative judge to determine whether the money paid to Mr. Benward while he worked for Wasatch post-accident was "intended as a substitute for disability compensation or as regular compensation for the work performed." The ALJ determined that Mr. Benward’s wages were legitimate and the commission affirmed that finding, concluding that Wasatch had an ongoing obligation to pay Mr. Benward for the remainder of his life.
Wasatch appealed, but the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. The court noted that Utah law has an exception for workers who have lost limbs or eyes in a workplace accident and considers such workers permanently disabled and entitled to permanent total disability benefits even if they are able to return to work.
The court held that there was no dispute that Mr. Benward met the requirements of the statute for demonstrating permanent total disability and that his status is “final” regardless of whether he works.
The court, therefore, ordered Wasatch to continue to pay benefits to Mr. Benward and refused to allow the company to offset the wages it paid post-accident.
A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling and reinstated a disability discrimination suit filed by a former nursing home licensed practical nurse, who said her employer pressured her to work more than a 12-hour day despite her medical professionals’ recommendation she not do so.