Permanent Partial Disability vs. Temporary Total Disability

New Jersey Workers’ Compensation law provides, in some areas, clear and concrete guidelines for work-related injury awards. Loss of a middle finger below the first joint, for example, is compensated with an award equal to 25 weeks pay. On the other hand, determination of disability, permanent or temporary, partial or total, depends on subjective evaluations of the employee’s ability to perform work.

How a judge determines permanent partial disability

Permanent partial disability is defined in the Workers’ Compensation statutes as permanent impairment. Criteria considered in determining disability include a reduced ability to work in light of age, training, and experience. The injured employee will be examined by two doctors, one presumably favoring the employer, and one the employee. The case will then be heard by a Judge of Compensation, who will listen to the employee’s description of the effect the injury has had on his or her life. It is recommended that the employee be represented by a workers’ compensation attorney at that hearing.

In a 9-11 World Trade Center case, Judge Ferriaro determined that David Handshuh’s permanent orthopedic pulmonary, neurological, and neurosychiatric injuries equaled 60% of total disability. She did so after listening to testimony of numerous doctors. Her decision referred to “the usual disparity in the estimates of permanent disability offered by the doctors,” commented that she was not bound by those estimates, and stated that she found Handshuh’s doctors to be more persuasive and credible. (Handschuh v. New York Daily News)

A determination of temporary total disability

There is common confusion, even among medical professionals, between the terms impairment and disability. Medically, impairment (altered health status) does not necessarily result in a disability (inability to perform actions previously possible). Social Security and Workers’ Compensation guidelines have more specific, work-related definitions.

Under New Jersey Workers’ Compensation law, disability is in part defined by the person’s reduced wage-earning capacity. Temporary total disability benefits are wage compensation paid until an injured employee is able to return to work. It is calculated at 70% of the weekly wage received at the time of the injury, not to total more than 75% of the average or less than 20% of the average. Temporary disability exists until the worker is as far restored as possible (in other words, has reached maximum medical improvement), whether or not the worker is able to return to work. It can be paid up to 400 weeks. The patient’s doctor determines when the patient has reached that endpoint in recovery, or is able to return to work.

An injured worker who feels the doctor has erred in determining the patient’s ability to return to work or endpoint in recovery can file a claim with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The claims process is challenging and the outcome can critically affect the worker’s quality of life. For that reason, the worker is advised to retain a workers’ compensation lawyer. The attorney will charge no fees until the matter is concluded, when the judge will determine the amount of the legal fees.

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