In Medlin v. Weaver Cooke Construction, a civil engineer hurt his shoulder on the job and was out of work receiving medical treatment. He was later able to return to work, but he had permanent restrictions that prevented him from doing all the tasks he used to do before his injury. He was later laid off due to the 2008 recession. The engineer diligently searched for a new job and was unable to find one. His employer then argued that it should be able to cut off his workers’ compensation benefits on the grounds that the only reason the engineer could not find a new job was due to the economic downturn, not his injury. The Industrial Commission agreed and terminated benefits for this reason.
On appeal, two judges for the Court of Appeals agreed with the Industrial Commission. The judges explained that, in order to obtain workers’ compensation benefits, an injured worker must prove that his injury caused his inability to find work. The judges ruled that the worker in this case failed to prove that point because of evidence that he was physically able to return to work and could have done so but for the bad economy. The judges said it didn’t matter that the engineer proved that he had been diligently searching for work.
The decision by this two-judge majority, however, was not unanimous. Judge Martha Geer wrote a separate dissenting opinion. Judge Geer would have sent the case back to the Industrial Commission, and said that the Commission and the majority had failed to apply the correct legal standard. Judge Geer explained that the worker proved he was disabled by showing he was capable of some work but after reasonable effort was unable to find employment. Citing years of precedent, Judge Geer said the burden should then have shifted to the employer, to prove that suitable jobs were available and that the worker was capable of obtaining one even with his limitations.
Judge Geer also disagreed with the majority’s ruling that workers cannot receive benefits where, but for economic factors, they are capable of returning to work. Judge Geer explained that this ruling—aside from being legally incorrect—places too great a burden on injured workers who have permanent restrictions. It requires them to prove that their inability to find another job is not due to a bad economy. Judge Geer wrote that this could be nearly impossible because, when economic conditions are difficult, employers presented with many job applicants may well prefer to hire those who do not have any physical restrictions at all.