Friday, September 30, 2022

Maryland Court of Appeals Prevents an Injured Firefighter from Double Dipping

Spevak v. Montgomery Cnty., 2022 Md. LEXIS 323.

        Recently, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an unreported opinion that clarified the standard necessary to apply the offset provision contained in Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-610.  The offset provision was designed to preclude duplicative recovery for the same injury, essentially preventing double-dipping into the same pot of comparable benefits.  This provision does not however hinder a claimant from receiving workers’ compensation benefits that are owed.  Instead, it is a means of regulating the terms of compensation for injury.

        The case before the Court of Appeals involved a firefighter who, after serving nearly three decades, went into retirement due to a service-related back injury.  Upon his retirement, Mr. Spevak began collecting $1,859.07 per week in service-connected total disability retirement benefits.  Nine years into retirement, Mr. Spevak suffered hearing loss related to his employment from exposure to loud noises, such as fire engines, sirens, and alarms.  Due to this hearing loss, Mr. Spevak filed an additional workers’ compensation claim to which the County objected.  The County argued that Mr. Spevak’s compensation for his hearing loss should be offset because he was already receiving service-connected total disability retirement benefits due to his back injury, which compensated him for wage loss. The County further noted that a failure to apply the offset would result in duplicative recovery for the same loss and Mr. Spevak would collect more than the maximum compensation available. Such compensation would be contrary to the legislative intent and workers’ compensation law.  Mr. Spevak countered arguing that prior case law identifies a “same injury” test, and if applied, compensation for hearing loss should not be offset because the back injury arose nine years prior to the occupational hearing loss. If the “same injury” test would not be satisfied, then Mr. Spevak’s compensation would not be subject to any offset.  

        The sole issue, in this case, was whether Mr. Spevak’s benefits were “similar benefits” under LE § 9-610. To address this question, the Court looked to the plain language of LE § 9-610(a) and prior case law and concluded that the “same injury” standard is the proper test to identify whether benefits are subject to an offset under LE § 9-610. The Court ultimately held for the County, stating that the benefits Mr. Spevak was receiving for his back injury fully compensate him for all injuries related to his service as a firefighter. Other service-connected benefits would therefore be duplicative under the workers’ compensation system.

        Following this case, it becomes apparent that in the event an individual suffers more than one occupational injury, benefits may be “similar” and subject to the offset even if injuries develop on different body parts and/or there is a significant gap of time from which the injuries developed. The focus and application of the provision appear to fall on the type of benefit received, rather than the type of injuries suffered.

                -- Faith Zellman, Law Clerk


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