What’s my case worth?
I hear that question a lot when I meet a new client. In a workers’ compensation case I tell them it depends on many factors; How much were you earning when you were hurt, what part of your body was injured, how severely you hurt, where you live, how much education you have, whether you can return back to your old job, etc.
There are a lot of variables. But in cases where an employee has some reasonable chance of being found to be permanently and totally disabled, in other words unable to find work from their work injury, there are two constants effect the value of any settlement: discount rate and life expectancy.
Discount rate is synonymous with the time value of money. In short, a dollar today is worth more than a dollar in the future. This is important in workers compensation because if a worker is found to be permanently and totally disabled then they will be paid weekly benefit checks for the rest of their life. Under Nebraska law, that benefit check will not increase over time. The question then becomes how much will the value of that money decrease overtime. The discount rate is the expected return on investment on the money. The higher the expected return on investment, the higher the discount rate. But the higher the discount rate, the less a lump sum settlement is worth in present dollars.
An award of permanent and total disability is a form of a pension. Abnormally low interest rates in the aftermath of the financial crises have raised concerns about investment returns for pensions. The Nebraska Workers Compensation Court has used a 5 percent discount rate to value awarded permanent and total disability benefits for at least the last 12 years. But the expected rate of return on investments, as measured by interest rates of declined over the last 12 years. Lump sum payments, like workers compensation settlements, based on a 5 percent long term interest rate undervalue those payments.
For example, a 30 year US Treasury bond yields roughly 2 ¾ percent. If a 50 year-old worker earning $600 per week is found to be permanently and totally disabled, the present value of an award of permanent and total disability would be $334,000 using the 5 percent discount rate and using the court’s life expectancy tables showing a 31.4 year life expectancy. But if the court used the 30 year bond yield as the discount rate, that same award of permanent and total disability would be worth $439,000.
The issue of discount rate and case valuations isn’t widely discussed in Nebraska, but it was a contentious issue in the United Kingdom when the government cut their discount rate in personal injury claims, called the Ogden rate, by 3.25% in February 2017. The Ogden rate was increased by .75-1.75 percent in September 2017 under pressure from insurance companies.
The other variable in valuing an award of permanent and total disability is life expectancy. The Nebraska Workers Compensation Court uses a general life expectancy table to value awards of permanent and total disability that doesn’t vary by gender or nationality/race. The CDC breaks down life expectancy along those lines. Men and African-Americans have shorter life expectancies so they would actually benefit from the use of the Nebraska Workers Compensation Court life expectancy tables. Women and Hispanics tend to live longer so they would not benefit by the use of the court tables. For example, a 50 year-old Hispanic woman is expected to live 35.9 years whereas the Nebraska Workers Compensation Court just assumes a 50 year old has a 31.4 year life expectancy. Use of the court’s life expectancy tables for a 50 year-old Hispanic woman earning $600 per week at the time of her injury could undervalue an award of permanent and total disability by about $18,000.
But workers who have a reasonable chance of being found to be permanently and totally disabled have other factors to think about when it comes to valuing any settlement of their claim. First, an insurer/employer only has to pay weekly benefits rather than a lump sum of money if a court finds a worker is permanently and totally disabled. They are free to use whatever discount rates and life expectancies they chose in valuing a claim for a settlement. Court rules about discount rates and life expectancy only come into play when an injured worker wants to take a lump sum settlement on an awarded finding of permanent and total disability.
Secondly many employees who could potentially be awarded permanent and total disability benefits are also awarded social security disability benefits. Social security disability benefits payments can be reduced or offset by any workers compensation benefits received. An offset can have the practical effect of capping the value of any settlement based on the probability of a worker being awarded permanent and total disability benefits.