Calif. Supreme Court Limits Employers’ Liability in Workers’ Comp

May 9, 2007

The California Supreme Court has ruled that workers’ compensation reforms adopted in 2004 do not supersede employer apportionment of compensation for permanent disability injuries.

In reviewing cases from five workers’ compensation preceedings with two unifying aspects —the injured worker’s current permanent disability level could be attributed in part to one or more previous industrial injuries or to nonindustrial causes, and the workers’ compensation judge applied the apportionment method determined in Fuentes v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Bd. (1976) 16 Cal.3d 1 (Fuentes) — the state high Court ruled that employers are not liable for an employee’s previous permanent disability or physical impairment if he or she sustains permanent injury thereafter.

According to the Court, the 2004 law intended only to charge employers “only with that percentage of permanent disability directly caused by the current industrial injury.” The employer should not “be liable for compensation to such an employee for the combined disability, but only for that portion due to the later injury as though no prior disability or impairment had existed.”

Worker advocates said injured employees would lose significant awards, and may not be able to get the medical treatment they need.

However, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the ruling “a huge victory in protecting the successful reforms to the workers’ compensation system that the legislature” and [he] accomplished together three years ago. “Thanks to these reforms, we have eliminated a poison to our economy and cut premiums by almost 65 percent — resulting in more than $15 billion in savings,” Schwarzenegger said.

Source: The Supreme Court of California

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