On September 18, 2013, the Supreme Court of Ohio announced its decision in State ex rel. Sziraki v. BWC. This decision, more than any in recent memory, highlights how the election of judges has an impact on injured workers.
The facts of this case are tragic. Dean Sziraki suffered catastrophic brain and spinal cord injuries when he had a motor vehicle accident in the course and scope of his employment. As a consequence of his work-related injury, he spent sixteen years in a quadriplegic and vegetative state in various hospital and nursing homes.
In addition to the payment of his medical care, it was undisputed that Mr. Sziraki was entitled to permanent total disability and total loss of use compensation. Unfortunately, because of his vegetative condition, he never applied for total loss of use compensation until his estate filed a request when he died in 2006.
It was clear and undisputed that Mr. Sziraki was eligible for exactly 850 weeks of benefits for the total loss of use of his arms and legs. Nevertheless, Ohio law restricts injured workers to only two years (104 weeks) of retroactive benefits. See R.C. sec. 4123.52(A).
The question in Mr. Sziraki's case was this: Should he not receive 746 weeks of compensation when BWC knew that Dean Sziraki was fully disabled, that he wasentitled to additional benefits that he was not receiving, and that he would notreceive those benefits until there was a guardian over his estate?
The disposition of Mr. Sziraki's case turned upon the following provision in R.C. sec.4123.57: “the employee may file an application with the bureau of workers’ compensation for the determination of the percentage of the employee’s permanent partial disability...” According to four out of the seven current supreme Court justices, unless he filed an application, BWC had no duty to pay the compensation.
Three other Supreme Court justices saw it differently. They noted: 1) The BWC can (and does) award compensation -- if appropriate -- without an application; 2) that BWC advertised this fact on their website; 3) that records of the BWC demonstrated -- multiple times -- that BWC was aware of his eligibility for this compensation; and 4) that Ohio law -- specifically RC sec. 4123.95 -- requires the law be interpreted in favor Ohio's employees.
As this case illustrates, deciding cases is not as simple as calling balls and strikes. Here, seven justices were presented with the same factual scenario -- four saw it one way and three the other. Did the four justices in the majority take care to ensure the welfare of future injured workers by rewarding inaction in the face of clear duty?