The $263 million question: Can Montana cap benefits at 65?

February 22nd, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

Montana courts are examining the issue of whether the state can terminate workers compensation benefits to workers at age 65, and if the court finds in favor of the plaintiff, the Montana State Found could be forced to retroactively pay benefits to those over 65. Grocery store worker Catherine Satterlee (PDF) has challenged the constitutionality of Montana’s law on the basis that terminating benefits treats people differently based on age. In December, the Workers Compensation Court found in favor of the state, but the decision is now expected to be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.
This issue is one that demonstrates the 50 state labyrinth that is workers comp. States handle this matter differently, as evidenced by the Department of Labor’s chart on benefits for permanent total disability by state statute (PDF). While most states stipulate “duration of disability” or “life” as the maximum benefits, a handful of states do cap benefits by duration, such as North Carolina at 500 weeks and Mississippi at 450 weeks. North Dakota and West Virginia also cap benefits at retirement age when Social Security and Medicare benefits would kick in.
An editorial in The Missoulian lays out some of the issues at play in this case:

“What you see in this statement is the necessary balancing of interests essential to the whole concept of workers’ compensation insurance. Workers are entitled to compensation only for lost wages and medical costs. The benefits are limited not because the Legislature is mean, but because unlimited benefits create unlimited risk for employers. Unlimited liability threatens the very existence of businesses, putting everybody’s job at risk. We need jobs; we need employers; workers and employers share the need for insurance covering workplace injuries. That’s the reality reflected in the Legislature’s “Declaration of Public Policy” for worker’s compensation.

In explicitly stating that workers’ compensation isn’t intended to make injured workers “whole,” the Legislature is saying the benefits are for lost wages and certain fringe benefits, not for lost opportunity or quality of life, however tragic those losses sometimes are.”

Essentially, this is what most laws and court challenges center around – the economic need to strike a balance between providing benefits for the employee and limiting potentially ruinous liability for the employer. Workers comp was largely intended as a stop-gap rather than a make-whole measure. That being said, Montana’s practice varies from the national norm, and it will be interesting to watch the decision of the court.