New Mexico Supreme Court: Total Temporary Disability Benefits May Be Available “For the Entire Life of a Worker”

The New Mexico Supreme Court recently held that New Mexico’s Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”) does not impose any time limits on how long an injured worker can receive Total Temporary Disability (TTD) benefits.

In Fowler v. Vista Care, the Court held that TTD benefits could be available “for life” so long as the injured worker has not reached “maximum medical improvement” (MMI). The Court of Appeals had previously held that the Act limited the appellant’s eligibility for TTD benefits to 700 weeks of benefits.

TTD Benefits

Under the Act, and injured worker will receive TTD until:

  1. The date your physician either releases you to return to work, with or without restrictions, and such work is offered to you or;
  2. The date on which you reach MMI, which is the time when your doctor decides you have recovered as much as you are going to recover.

The Act itself does not contain any specific time limits in terms of days, weeks, months, or years on how long TTD benefits may be available.

The Facts

While working for Vista Care, appellant Sherrie Fowler suffered a back injury. Fowler began receiving TTD benefits and subsequently underwent back surgery. Several years later, a physician determined that she had reached MMI.Fowler then applied for a lump-sum payment for Partial Permanent Disability (PPD) and her application was approved by the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration (WCA).

Soon after, her doctor determined that her back injury had progressed and that she needed a second surgery. Fowler filed a complaint with the WCA to reinstate her TTD benefits and to cover the cost of the surgery.While Vista Care authorized payment for the surgery, its insurer disputed whether the surgery was in fact related to the 2003 injury. A workers compensation judge found that Fowler was entitled to TTD benefits from the time her doctor indicated she was no longer at maximum medical improvement. Significantly, the judge declined to limit her TTD benefits by the 500-week or 700-week limits set forth in the Act for PPD benefits, citing a provision of the law that states TTD benefits may potentially be received for life.

The Court of Appeals saw things differently, however, and held that Fowler was limited to 700 weeks of TTD benefits.

No Time Limits on TTD Benefits

The Supreme Court, in reversing the appellate court and agreeing with the workers’ compensation judge, held that the time limits set forth in the Act that apply to PPD benefits do not apply to TTD benefits because no such specific time limits are contained in the Act. The Court noted that the Act:

“…acknowledges the realistic possibility that some workers may become totally disabled for a period of time, reach MMI or be released for work by their physicians before MMI and return to work, and later face subsequent work-related injuries or find their existing injuries exacerbated, rendering them totally disabled yet again.”

The Court concluded that “the plain language and legislative history of [the Act] indicates that the Legislature intended TTD benefits to be available for the entire life of a worker.”

This is a significant victory for the rights of injured New Mexico workers.

The Law Offices of Jeffrey C. Brown: Fighting for New Mexico Workers

We know how hard you work, and we’ll work just as hard for you. Call the Law Offices of Jeffrey C. Brown & Derek Thompson today at (505) 275-6600 or fill out our online form to arrange for your free initial consultation to discuss your workers’ compensation matter. We look forward to helping you get back on your feet, and back to work.

This website has been prepared by the Law Offices of Jeffrey C. Brown for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.