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Removal of ‘imbecility’ from state disability code is retroactive


The Vermont legislature’s decision to change old language for permanent disabilities from “incurable imbecility or insanity” to “traumatic brain injury” was retroactive and applies to a former fire district worker who suffered significant skull fractures in a workplace fall, the state Supreme Court ruled.

In West v. North Branch Fire District #1, the Supreme Court on Friday reversed and remanded a workers compensation commissioner’s decision that the 2014 legislative change was not retroactive and that the worker did not qualify for benefits because he did not meet the former definition of suffering from “incurable imbecility or insanity.”

John West was working for the North Branch Fire District in Dover, Vermont, when he suffered serious injuries in a 20-foot fall in March 2013. He was transported to the hospital and treated for multiple skull fractures, seizure-like activity and a hemorrhage along his temporal lobe.

In 2014, prior to his request for a formal hearing on his disability, the Vermont legislature modified state code to define total and permanent disability as "an injury to the skull resulting in severe traumatic brain injury causing permanent and severe cognitive, physical, or psychiatric disabilities." Prior law, enacted in 1978, defined it as "an injury to the skull resulting in incurable imbecility or insanity."

The legislature explained in an accompanying statement that the change was made to “replace offensive statutory terms with language that recognizes persons as opposed to their disabilities" and that the changes in terminology should not "be construed to alter the substance or effect of existing law or judicial precedent." 

North Branch argued that the pre-amendment version of the law was in effect at the time of Mr. West’s injury and that a physician conducting an independent medical examination in 2020 determined that his injury did not result in “incurable imbecility or insanity.”

Mr. West argued that the amendment applied retroactively because the legislature’s intent was not to change rights but to replace offensive language.

A workers compensation commissioner found in favor of North Branch, stating that the legislature “unintentionally changed the substance” of the law, and Mr. West appealed.

In reversing the commissioner’s decision and remanding the case,  the Vermont Supreme Court held that the 2014 amendment does apply retroactively because it was a “remedial change” and the legislature “expressly described the amendment as a clarification” of the previous language.

The court also dismissed North Branch’s argument that Mr. West is not totally and permanently disabled because he is “gainfully employed,” holding that permanent disability benefits are calculated on the basis of physical impairment — not earning power — and that the factual dispute over his disabilities must be remanded for determination.