Alabama Employers can Deny Claim While also Paying Indemnity and Medical Benefits
On July 25, 2014, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals considered an interesting scenario where the trial judge granted an employee's motion to strike the employer's defenses to compensability that were asserted in its Answer and then entered an Order requiring the employer to pay for disputed medical treatment. The court also denied the employer's motion for an independent medical examination. As a result, the employer petition the Court of Appeals for a writ of mandamus as to all three rulings.
The genesis for the above referenced flurry of motions, was a general denial filed by the employer in its Answer. This means that the employer disputed each and every allegation in the Complaint and admitted nothing. The employee took issue with the inconsistent nature of denying all allegations in the Complaint while, at the same time, paying indemnity and medical benefits, and asserting a statutory right to an IME. Basically, it was the position of the employee that the employer could not, on one hand, deny the claim while, on the other hand, treat it as accepted.
In Alabama, if the compensability of a claim is denied, then medical treatment cannot be compelled until the issue of compensability has been determined by either a trial on the merits or by way of a successful motion for summary judgment. Rather than proceed with either of these two options, the employee sought to simply have the denial itself removed from the Answer thus clearing the way for the judge to order that medical treatment be provided. While the employee gets creativity points for this approach, the Court of Appeals pointed out that the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act and the Alabama Rules of Evidence prohibit an employee from using the payment of indemnity and/or medical benefits against an employer as an admission of compensability. Further, the employee was unable to provide any legal support for the proposition that filing a motion for an IME amounted to an admission of compensability. Since there was no apparent inconsistency between the employer's Answer and its subsequent actions, the Court of Appeals granted the petition as to the struck defenses and the order to compel medical treatment. However, it denied the petition as to the employer's IME request.
My Two Cents:
Even when a claim is denied and indemnity benefits are not provided, employers often times continue to provide medical care until a final ruling is made by a judge. When this option is exercised, it allows employers to retain control of the medical treatment, just in case they eventually lose. It also allows the employee to continue to receive medical treatment during the litigation process. If the Court of Appeals had ruled differently in this case, it would have likely had a chilling effect on the payment of early medical benefits. This was a good ruling for employers and employees alike.
About the Author
This article was written by Michael I. Fish, Esq. of Fish Nelson & Holden LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers' compensation matters. Fish Nelson is a member of The National Workers' Compensation Network (NWCDN). If you have any questions about this article or Alabama workers' compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or any firm member at 205-332-1448.��