Use Back Button to return to Index of Cases
IN THE WORKERS' COMPENSATION COURT OF THE STATE OF MONTANA
2001 MTWCC 25
WCC No. 2000-0207
STATE COMPENSATION INSURANCE FUND
PRAIRIE NEST RANCH
DECISION AND JUDGMENT
Summary: Claimant urges that the failure of the Occupational Disease Act (ODA) to provide permanent partial disability (PPD) benefits equivalent to those available under the Workers' Compensation Act (WCA) violates her equal protection rights. If her claim arose under the WCA she would be entitled to $27,027 in PPD benefits, § 39-71-703, MCA, whereas under the ODA the maximum she can recover is $10,000. § 39-72-405, MCA (1997).
Held: Under Henry v. State Compensation Insurance Fund, 1999 MT 126, the $10,000 limitation is unconstitutional and claimant is entitled to the same benefits she would receive if her condition arose under the WCA.
¶1 The issue in this case is whether the failure of the 1997 version of the Montana ODA to provide PPD benefits equivalent to the benefits provided in the Montana WCA violates the claimant's right to equal protection of the law.
¶2 The facts are agreed (Agreed Facts filed January 23, 2001). Those facts are as follows:
¶3 As set forth in the statement of facts, the ODA provides a maximum of $10,000 in benefits to claimants who are permanently disabled but not permanently totally disabled, in other words, to claimants who are permanently partially disabled. For the same disability, the WCA would provide the claimant in this case with $27,027 in PPD benefits, which is nearly three times greater than the maximum benefits allowed under the ODA. Thus, clearly as applied to this case, the ODA provides less favorable benefits to the claimant than to an identically situated claimant whose condition arose as a result of an injury on a single day of work.
¶4 In Eastman v. Atlantic Richfield Co. 237 Mont. 332, 777 P.2d 862 (1989), the Montana Supreme Court held that the ODA's $10,000 limitation of benefits to permanently partially disabled claimants does not violate equal protection guarantees notwithstanding the more liberal benefits available under the WCA. The analysis in Eastman was as follows:
237 Mont. at 338-39, 777 P.2d at 866.
¶5 As set forth in the discussion in Eastman, the rationale for distinguishing between claimants suffering from occupational diseases and those suffering from industrial injuries is based on the fact that historically the common law allowed tort suits for injuries based on employer negligence. Similar employer liability did not exist in cases of occupational disease. Thus, the quid pro quo with respect to workers' compensation injuries -- which was the exchange of no-fault benefits for the right to sue the employer -- did not apply to occupational disease benefits.
¶6 In Henry v. State Compensation Insurance Fund, 1999 MT 126, 294 Mont. 449, 982 P.2d 456 (1999), the Montana Supreme Court held that "the historical justification for treating workers differently under the WCA and the ODA no longer exists. Indeed, the entire underpinnings of Eastman have evaporated, rendering its continued validity questionable." That case (Henry) involved a claim for rehabilitation benefits. Those benefits arise under the WCA but are not available under the ODA. The claimant, who suffered an occupational disease, challenged the failure on equal protection grounds and the Supreme Court sustained his challenge.
¶7 The Supreme Court initially distinguished Eastman on the ground that the statute challenged in Henry involved "the wholesale denial of the same benefits to another similarly situated group," whereas Eastman had involved a mere difference in the degree of benefits available under the two acts. The Henry Court's subsequent analysis, however, makes it impossible to limit its decision to denials of benefits. The Court goes on to say:
295 Mont. at 459-60. The bolded language is comprehensive and unequivocal. I am bound by it. I cannot qualify or limit it.
¶8 I conclude that the failure of the legislature to provide as generous benefits to claimant under the ODA as she would receive if her condition arose under the WCA violates claimant's right to equal protection of the laws. She is therefore entitled to PPD benefits calculated in accordance with the WCA.
¶9 Where PPD benefits calculated pursuant to the WCA are greater than the benefits available a claimant under the ODA, constitutional equal protection guarantees require that benefits be computed and paid in accordance with the WCA.
¶10 The claimant in this case is entitled to PPD benefits in the sum of $27,027, which the insurer shall pay.
¶11 This Decision and Judgment is otherwise certified as final for purposes of appeal. ARM 24.5.348.
¶12 Any party to this dispute may have twenty (20) days in which to request a rehearing from this Decision and Judgment.
DATED in Helena, Montana, this 22nd day of May, 2001.
c: Mr. Thomas J. Murphy
Use Back Button to return to Index of Cases