Maine Supreme Judicial Court: Firefighter Entitled to Permanent Impairment in Workers’ Compensation Case

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled the doctrine of res judicata prohibits the re-litigation of a workers’ compensation claimant’s permanent impairment level, as previously established for a Maine work injury. 

The doctrine of res judicata means literally “a matter judged.” In general, the idea is that an issue cannot be re-litigated once it’s already been judged on its merits. This encompasses limits on both the claims and any issues that may be raised in subsequent proceedings. The question was whether this doctrine would not allow a defendant in a workers’ compensation case to re-litigate the issue of permanent impairment level for a worker whose impairment level had already been established by a previous court. The court agreed the doctrine applied.

According to court records, the proceeding that kicked this off was a 2014 decision by the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board that granted the city’s petition to consider the ongoing extent of the plaintiff’s permanent impairment. At the time the board accepted this petition, the plaintiff was 65 years old and had a long history of working with the local fire department, which he joined in 1975.

In 2001, he suffered a work-related respiratory injury and was diagnosed with reactive airways deficiency syndrome. He began to receive partial incapacity benefits based on that injury starting in 2004. Three years later, the city sought review of the award and benefits, and the plaintiff asked the workers’ compensation hearing officer for a determination regarding the extent of his permanent injuries.

The hearing officer determined the plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement, and he was permanently impaired by a little more than 30 percent. This was based on the results of an independent medical exam performed in 2007. Pursuant to the Maine Workers’ Compensation Law, since the decree established the former firefighter had a permanent impairment level that exceeded 15 percent, he was eligible to receive ongoing compensation without a cap. In Maine workers’ compensation cases, a permanent impairment that involves a personal injury that is in excess of 15 percent is not subject to a damages cap. A permanent impairment, as defined by the law, means any anatomic or functional abnormality or loss that exists after the date of maximum medical improvement that results from that injury.

Six years later, the city petitioned the board for a hearing on the plaintiff’s incapacity, as well as another determination on the extent of his permanent impairment. The city introduced evidence of a new medical exam showing the plaintiff’s level of permanent impairment had fallen to 0. The hearing officer rejected the plaintiff’s argument that res judicata barred this action. The hearing officer also terminated the plaintiff’s workers’ compensation, citing the new report that indicated a 0 percent permanent impairment rating.

The plaintiff appealed. In a decision that was unanimous, the appellate court vacated the hearing officer’s ruling, finding the 2007 ruling on the worker’s permanent impairment and maximum medical improvement was final, and thus res judicata was applicable. The appellate court further ruled there was no significant change in circumstances to warrant the hearing officer revisiting the issue of maximum medical improvement.

The city sought review of that decision from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which affirmed.

The court noted that in general, valid judgments entered by a court – if not appealed – generally fall under the res judicata umbrella, and they can’t be subject to reconsideration later. Furthermore, absent some specific statutory authority, the workers’ compensation board doesn’t have the power to re-open or or amend a final decision.

If you are a victim of a Bangor accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Bailey v. City of Lewiston, July 20, 2017, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Report: Maine Workers Most Commonly Suffer Back Injuries, Nov. 18, 2017, Bangor Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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