FRANCIS J. CHURCHVILLE, JR. v. BRUCE R. DALY MECHANICAL CONTRACTOR et al., SC 18546

Compensation Review Board

 

      Workers' Compensation; Whether the Plaintiff Needed to Make an Affirmative Request for Permanent Partial Disability Benefits Prior to his Death in Order to Vest the Right to Such Benefits in his Estate or Widow.  The plaintiff was injured while working for the defendant and began receiving temporary total disability benefits.  Years later, the defendant and its insurer filed a "form 36," seeking to reduce the plaintiff's benefits from total disability to permanent partial disability on the ground that the plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement.  The plaintiff objected and forwarded a settlement demand to the defendants, which outlined a settlement scenario for either a temporary total disability claim or a permanent partial disability claim.  The workers' compensation commissioner denied the form 36.  After the plaintiff subsequently died of causes unrelated to his work injuries, his attorney stated that he no longer objected to the form 36.  Following a hearing, the commissioner found that the plaintiff had sustained permanent partial disabilities, that his settlement demand was an "affirmative request" for permanent partial disability benefits and that, since he made the request after reaching maximum medical improvement, the benefits had vested.  The commissioner retroactively approved the form 36 and ordered that all total disability payments made to the plaintiff after the filing of the form be credited against the award of permanent partial disability benefits.  The defendants appealed to the compensation review board, arguing that the commissioner improperly concluded that the plaintiff's right to permanent partial disability benefits vested prior to his death.  They asserted that such awards do not vest until a plaintiff makes an affirmative request for the benefits and that the plaintiff's settlement demand was not such a request.  They claimed that the first demand for the benefits occurred after the plaintiff's death, when his attorney stated that he no longer objected to the form 36.  The board disagreed, concluding that permanent partial disability benefits vest when a plaintiff attains maximum medical improvement and that an affirmative request is not required.  It noted, however, that the plaintiff in this case had provided the defendants with a settlement letter requesting permanent partial disability benefits in the event that he was found to be no longer totally disabled.  Moreover, it found that there was ample evidence that the plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement.   It also affirmed the commissioner's ruling that the defendants were entitled to take a credit against the permanent partial disability award for total disability payments made to the plaintiff after the filing of the form 36.  In this appeal, the defendants argue that the board improperly found that an affirmative request for benefits was not required and that the settlement demand did not constitute such a request.  They also argue that if an affirmative request is not required and benefits vest upon maximum medical improvement, then they are entitled to a credit for the total disability payments paid since the date that the plaintiff first reached maximum medical improvement, as opposed to the date the form 36 was filed.  Before reaching these claims, the Supreme Court will first address whether the plaintiff's death and the failure to substitute a personal representative of his estate affects its jurisdiction and whether it affected the jurisdiction of the commissioner and the review board.