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Injured employees who accept commutation of workers’ compensation benefits in the form of a lump sum payment for 360 weeks of future benefits forfeit their right to benefits beyond the commuted time period, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled in a case of first impression. The court, by a 6-1 vote, rejected a proposal that a claimant commute a portion of his total disability benefits while retaining the right to collect benefits indefinitely into the future after the end of the commuted period. In Bush v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, the majority reasoned that commutation, or the present payment of future benefits in one lump sum, was intended by the state legislature as an alternative to weekly income maintenance. It was not intended as an interim treatment of a total disability claim. Section 316 of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which allows commutation, contemplates a “permanent change” in the relationship between the employer and the injured employee, the majority said. The intent was to provide a claimant with full compensation and the employer with finality, the court reasoned. “[I]f the General Assembly intended the option of such a partial commutation, it would have explicitly drafted such a provision,” Senior Judge Joseph T. Doyle wrote for the majority. “Instead, it referred to ‘compensation’ in the singular, suggesting that the entire total disability award may be commuted, not just a segment of it.” In dissent, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman said that the majority incorrectly chose a narrow reading of the state Workers’ Compensation Act. Liberal construction, she argued, is required by the fact that the act is remedial legislation. “It is well established that we must liberally construe the provisions of the Act to effectuate its humanitarian objectives, and, in doing so, we must construe borderline interpretations in favor of the injured worker,” Friedman wrote in dissent. In Bush, the claimant, Gary R. Bush, was seriously injured in a 1976 accident while he was working for the Swatara Coal Co. He has been receiving $187 per week from his employer ever since the mishap, which left him totally disabled from his job. In December 1996, Bush sought a lump sum payment of more than $67,000, representing 360 weeks of total disability benefits. He proposed to resume his weekly benefits at the end of the 360-week commutation period. A workers’ compensation judge granted Bush’s petition, and the employer appealed the decision to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board. The board said that the partial commutation was improper, telling the parties that a commutation must provide for the resolution of all future benefits and settle all of the employers’ obligations to the injured worker. The majority began its examination by noting that there was no case law on the permissibility of partial commutation of a total disability claim. The majority cited two Commonwealth Court opinions — Shaffer v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board from 1991 and Green v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board in 1979 — for the principle that commutation petitions preclude future claims, and satisfy all obligations of the employer to the injured worker. The statements about the finality imposed by commutation may have been dicta, Doyle said, “but, those conclusions, nevertheless, represented important policy considerations regarding the effects of a commutation on future compensation benefits.” The Workers’ Compensation Act, Doyle concluded, permits commutation — but only of a claimant’s entire award. In dissent, Friedman urged an expansive reading of Section 316, one which would allow commutation “in the best interest of the employee,” including partial commutations that would include the possibility of future benefits beyond the end of the commutation period. In allowing for the commutation of total disability claims, Friedman reasoned, the legislature “was not unaware [that] such a commutation would not necessarily satisfy the future obligations of the parties to one another.” Joining Doyle in the majority were President Judge James Gardner Colins; Judges Doris A. Smith-Ribner, Dan Pellegrini, and Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Senior Judge James R. Kelley. Bush’s lawyer was Richard J. Wiest of Williamson F & J in Pottsville, Schuylkill County. Swatara Coal was represented in the case by Jonathan F. Ball of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman and Goggin in Philadelphia.

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