The Mississippi Court of Appeals found that a worker who was still employed with their employer and earning a higher wage than before the injury was still entitled to an award of 20 percent loss of earning power.
So a lot of workers comp. heads who read this blog may wonder why this decision blogworthy and why it applies to Nebraska?
The answer to those questions is 1) I think the reasoning behind Chambers v. Howard Industries is interesting and it questions some assumption behind a recent Nebraska Supreme Court case on apportioning benefits to previous injuries.
In his post on Chambers, commentator Thomas Robinson pointed out that the plaintiff proved that since his job was altered to fit his restrictions that helped prove that he had lost earning capacity which is different than wages earned. The Mississippi Court was also persuaded by the fact that average wages had increased between the time of the plaintiff’s injury and the award, so an increase in wages wouldn’t necessarily equate in an increase in earning power.
I think the Chambers decision is also fair and equitable in that workers are stuck with benefit rates based on their date of injury. Additionally, in Nebraska, workers’ compensation benefits don’t increase along with the cost of living or inflation. Fairness should dictate employers can’t use inflation to decrease benefit payments to workers under these circumstances.
This summer the Nebraska Supreme Court more or less ignored these arguments in the Picard case. In Picard the Nebraska Supreme Court found it was error to award an injured worker additional loss of earning power benefits for an injury to a different body parts because they were working for the same employer at a higher wage.
Chambers is distinguishable from Picard in that Chambers didn’t involve apportioning benefits paid from a prior injury. Mississippi law is also different from Nebraska law in that there is a formal presumption that an employee who is earning more after an injury does not have a loss of earning power. At least in cases where there was prior payment of loss of earning power, courts in Nebraska are still clearly looking at how an injury effects your ability to earn wages and not solely earned wages post-injury in determining loss of earning power.
I believe the Chambers decision adds some persuasive weight for employees arguing that overall increases in wages should not factor into determinations about loss of earning power. It’s not unusual to try workers compensation cases a 2-3 years after a date of injury. From 2018 to 2021, the average wage in Nebraska has increased nearly 10 percent. Chambers stands for the proposition of law that increases in wages in line with the overall increase in wages should not factor into a loss of earning power analysis.
Close cases with two member LOEP
While a 10 percent different in wages may seem relatively insignificant it may mean the difference between an employee being found to have a 30 percent loss of earning power for the purposes of a multi-member impairment and being stuck with compensation for scheduled member impairment for purposes of Neb. Rev. Stat. 48-121(3)
Loss of earning power is determined by a formula that takes wages, education, location and other factors in to account. Changes to the variables in the formula can lead to significant changes in loss of earning power. The difference between compensating and injury based on scheduled member impairments or at 30 percent loss of earning capacity can add up to 45-60 weeks of benefits which for an employee earning $15 per hour for a 40 hour week can up to between $18,000-$24,000.