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Right to COLA benefit not affected by pre-existing impairment – CSA

The workers’ compensation law is blind to pre-existing impairments when determining eligibility for a cost of living adjustment to an award of permanent, total disability benefits, the Court of Special Appeals has held.

The decision reverses the circuit court and reinstates a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Commission in favor of Linda K. Ball, formerly an employee of the University of Maryland College Park.

In August 1996, the commission determined that Ball was permanently, totally disabled due to a combination of a work-related accident (75 percent) and a pre-existing condition (25 percent). In 1999, Ball applied for and received a cost of living adjustment, or COLA.

The university fought the COLA, arguing that the adjustment is available only when a work-related injury or illness is the sole cause of the permanent total disability (PTD).

It pointed out that COLA adjustments are found only in subtitle 6 of the workers’ compensation act, which sets forth categories of benefits.

Injuries to workers with pre-existing conditions are dealt with in subtitle 8, which limits the employer’s exposure in such cases and provides that the Subsequent Injury Fund will pay any additional benefits due.

“We do not interpret Subtitles 6 and 8 so as to exclude consideration of [each] other,” Judge John F. McAuliffe wrote for the court. (McAuliffe, who is retired, was specially assigned to the appellate panel.) “Instead they are to be read together as they are subdivisions of the same Title.”

In essence, “Subtitle 8 explains how the costs of Subtitle 6 benefits are to be allocated” when a PTD results from the combination of a covered injury and a pre-existing impairment, the court held.

The university argued that allowing COLA benefits under subtitle 8 would have “a chilling effect and will deter employers from hiring such individuals,” last week’s opinion states.

However, that argument rests on a flawed assumption, the appellate court held.

“What the University overlooked in making this argument is that the Commission’s award shifts the ultimate financial impact of the COLA to the Subsequent Injury Fund: a result that is entirely consistent with the underlying policy of the Workers’ Compensation Law,” McAuliffe wrote.<table width=”100%” border=”0″ cellspacing=”0″ cellpadding=”0″

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case: Ball v. University of Maryland College Park et al., CSA No. 490, Sept. Term 2000. Reported. Opinion by McAuliffe, J., ret’d., spec. assigned. Filed Mar. 6, 2001.Issue: Where the worker’s permanent, total disability resulted from a combination of a workplace injury and a pre-existing impairment, did the Workers’ Compensation Commission err in awarding a cost of living adjustment to the benefit≠Holding: No; reversed. While COLA benefits are dealt with in subtitle 6 of the Workers’ Compensation Law, while injuries to workers with pre-existing impairments are dealt with in subtitle 8, the subtitles are to be read together. Subtitle 8 explains how the costs of subtitle 6 are to be allocated between the employer and the Subsequent Injury Fund.Counsel: Benjamin T. Boscolo for appellant; Joan P. Adelman for appellees.RecordFax: #1-0306-02 (16 pages)