North Carolina Supreme Court Weighs In on Long-Running Procedural Saga Regarding Permanent Impairment
Although overshadowed by the Wilkes v. City of Greenville opinion issued the same day, the N.C. Supreme Court came to a decision on another workers’ compensation matter last month. While not as significant as Wilkes in terms of future claim handling (at least until subsequent legislation takes effect), the decision in Harrison v. Gemma Power Sys., LLC did provide some insight on how the courts look at issues such as statute of limitations and permanent impairment. Harrison is also a good reminder of how litigation can often take years to wind its way through the system, an often overlooked factor in the early decision-making and settlement process.
The plaintiff in Harrison suffered a compensable neck injury and was quickly released without restrictions in 2001 after the treating doctor found no permanent impairment. Defendants continued to authorize treatment over the ensuing years, including two independent medical examinations. By 2009, defendants determined that the effects of the accident had subsided, and they refused to provide additional medical treatment after an MRI referral.
The case turned into a procedural quagmire, replete with technical arguments and what the courts determined to be deficient findings of fact. After remands and new decisions, the case ended up at the Court of Appeals twice before the N.C. Supreme Court heard the matter. From a risk handling perspective, the key takeaways are as follows:
- Even if an employee continues authorized treatment and later obtains work restrictions, when two years goes by from the last payment of medical compensation in a medical-only claim, the employee is then time barred from receiving indemnity benefits.
- Plaintiffs are eligible for permanent impairment compensation regardless of whether they suffered a loss of wage-earning capacity.
- If a plaintiff receives an early determination that no permanent impairment is found, this opinion is not conclusive as subsequent treatment could indicate that impairment is indeed warranted.
- However, work restrictions placed on an employee many years after an accident do not necessarily indicate a compensable impairment unless the restrictions are deemed to relate back to the accident.
After reviewing and attempting to reconcile the previous findings of fact and conclusions of law, the N.C. Supreme Court remanded the Harrison case so that the Industrial Commission could more adequately address whether plaintiff retains any compensable permanent impairment. Closure is thus still forthcoming. Even though no ground-breaking law has been established, the case does highlight that the time it takes for a party to obtain relief is often out of their control once a case moves into litigation mode.