Meridian Professional Baseball Club v. Jensen

Decision Date10 October 2002
Docket NumberNo. 1999-CT-02093-SCT.,1999-CT-02093-SCT.
PartiesMERIDIAN PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL CLUB and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company v. Blair JENSEN.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Donald V. Burch, John S. Gonzalez, Jackson, attorneys for appellants.

Kevin Lewis, Jackson, attorney for appellee.



COBB, J., for the Court.

¶ 1. At issue in this appeal is the amount of workers' compensation benefits due an employee for partial loss of use of his arm. We granted certiorari because the case requires a reconsideration of the proof required in compensation cases of this nature. We affirm the judgments of the Commission and the Court of Appeals and explore how such claims should be examined.


¶ 2. Blair Jensen suffered an injury to his left arm while employed as a professional baseball player for the Meridian Brakemen. Jensen at the time was a twenty-one-year-old high school graduate, who between baseball seasons had worked as a sports coach, construction worker and produce packer. His average weekly wage at the time of the injury was $187.50. After the injury he worked a variety of part-time jobs while going to school. By the time of his hearing for workers' compensation, Jensen was working full time at a medical clinic and making approximately $320 a week, while continuing his education as a junior at Fresno State University.

¶ 3. Jensen sought workers' compensation benefits for full occupational loss of his left arm. By medical opinion, Jensen's arm was only 7% functionally impaired after maximum recovery, but the opinion further stated that Jensen would be unable to return to "his usual profession as a baseball catcher" and should be permanently restricted from work requiring repetitive overhead lifting.

¶ 4. At his administrative hearing, Jensen offered his medical proof and also his own testimony. He testified that his injured arm restricted him somewhat in his current work and recreational activities. The administrative judge found by "the evidence as a whole" that, although Jensen could no longer play professional baseball, "he can earn as much or more working part time while going to college than he was earning as a baseball player at the time of the injury." Notwithstanding this wage-earning capacity, the AJ awarded benefits for a 25% occupational loss of use of Jensen's left arm. The full Commission affirmed, and the case has proceeded on appeal.

¶ 5. The Lauderdale County Circuit Court ruled in Jensen's favor in the initial appeal. The circuit court found the law to be that total loss of use to a scheduled member occurs when a claimant is unable to perform the "substantial acts of his usual employment" and that "usual employment" refers to a claimant's job at the time of injury.

¶ 6. The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court's judgment and reinstated the order of the Commission. That court found that, while the Commission must look to the evidence to determine if the claimant could still perform the substantial acts of his usual employment, the phrase "usual employment" has a broader meaning than the job at the time of injury. The Court of Appeals found that Jensen's recent jobs, activities and education constituted substantial evidence to support the Commission's finding of less than a total loss of use.

¶ 7. Jensen contends that he is entitled to benefits commensurate with full occupational loss of his arm, because the focus should be on partial "loss of use" under the applicable statute, and precedent establishes he is so entitled because his injury prevents him from performing the substantial acts of his "usual employment," i.e., baseball player. His employer argues that the determination should be made from the evidence as a whole and that the claimant's wage-earning ability after the injury should be considered.


¶ 8. This Court will overturn the Workers' Compensation Commission decision only for an error of law or an unsupported finding of fact. Georgia Pac. Corp. v. Taplin, 586 So.2d 823, 826 (Miss.1991). Reversal is proper only when a Commission order is not based on substantial evidence, is arbitrary or capricious, or is based on an erroneous application of the law. Smith v. Jackson Constr. Co., 607 So.2d 1119,1124 (Miss.1992).



¶ 9. Although the most applicable section of the Workers' Compensation Law, Miss. Code Ann. §§ 71-3-1 to -129 (2000 & Supp.2002), is § 71-3-17(c)(22)-(23), for purposes of comparison it is helpful to view that section in context with the other sections shown below. The applicable statute defines disability as follows:

Unless the context otherwise requires, the definitions which follow govern the construction and meaning of the terms used in this chapter:....
(i) "Disability" means incapacity because of injury to earn the wages which the employee was receiving at the time of injury in the same or other employment, which incapacity and the extent thereof must be supported by medical findings.

Miss.Code Ann. § 71-3-3 (2000).

Compensation for disability shall be paid to the employee as follows:....
(c) Permanent partial disability: In case of disability partial in character but permanent in quality, ... 66-2/3% ... of the average weekly wages of the injured employee, subject to the maximum limitations as to weekly benefits as set up in this chapter, which shall be paid following compensation for temporary total disability paid in accordance with subsection (b) of this section, and shall be paid to the employee as follows:

Number Weeks Member Lost Compensation (1) Arm 200 ....

(22) Total loss of use: Compensation for permanent total loss of use of a member shall be the same as for loss of the member.
(23) Partial loss or partial loss of use: Compensation for permanent partial loss or loss of use of a member may be for proportionate loss or loss of use of the member.


(25) Other cases: In all other cases in this class of disability, the compensation shall be ... 66-2/3 % ... of the difference between his average weekly wages, subject to the maximum limitations as to weekly benefits as set up in this chapter, and his wage-earning capacity thereafter in the same employment or otherwise, payable during the continuance of such partial disability, but subject to reconsideration of the degree of such impairment by the commission on its own motion or upon application of any party in interest. Such payments shall in no case be made for a longer period than four hundred fifty (450) weeks.

Id. § 71-3-17.

¶ 10. Early in the history of the Workers' Compensation Law, this Court recognized that the act should be given a broad and liberal construction as to both individual cases and the laws that govern them. L.B. Priester & Son, Inc. v. Bynum's Dependents, 244 Miss. 185, 197-98, 142 So.2d 30, 31 (1962). Doubtful cases are to be resolved in favor of compensation so that the beneficial purposes of the act may be achieved. Miss. Transp. Comm'n v. Dewease, 691 So.2d 1007, 1016 (Miss. 1997); Robinson v. Packard Elec. Div., Gen. Motors Corp., 523 So.2d 329, 332 (Miss.1988); Nat'l Sur. Corp. v. Kemp, 217 Miss. 537, 543, 64 So.2d 723, 725 (1953); Lucedale Veneer Co. v. Rogers, 211 Miss. 613, 622, 48 So.2d 148, 150 (1950).

¶ 11. We are aided in our construction of statutes by definitions provided by the act, such as the definition above for "disability." The courts have added other definitions to implement application of the compensation law. "Functional" or "medical" loss refers to physical impairment. "Industrial" or "occupational" loss is "the functional or medical disability as it affects the claimant's ability to perform the duties of employment." McGowan v. Orleans Furniture, Inc., 586 So.2d 163, 166 (Miss.1991) (quoting Robinson, 523 So.2d at 331). Recognizing the distinction between a functional and an occupational loss is essential to the correct legal resolution of the present case.

¶ 12. This is a permanent-loss, scheduled-member, workers' compensation case. The focus in this case is narrowly upon the extent of benefits Jensen can be awarded for permanent partial functional loss to his arm, a part of the body listed or "scheduled" under § 71-3-17(c). This case is not concerned with total loss (such as an amputated arm), or total loss of use (such as a paralyzed arm), for which maximum scheduled benefits are available. Workers are entitled to be compensated for total loss or total loss of use of a scheduled member in accordance with the number of weeks provided by statute. Jensen did not claim total occupational disability, so the total disability statute is not directly in play.

¶ 13. Although the loss of a member might have no impact on the worker's ability to perform his job, the statute nevertheless provides a rigid formula for compensation. This imprecision reflects a legislative preference for certainty over extended litigation in scheduled member cases. Walker Mfg. Co. v. Cantrell, 577 So.2d 1243, 1247 (Miss.1991). "[T]he Act arbitrarily schedules the compensation payable for loss of or loss of use of a scheduled member, focusing upon a claimant's functional [i.e., medical] loss and without regard to loss of wage earning capacity." Smith v. Jackson Constr. Co., 607 So.2d 1119, 1126 (Miss.1992) (emphasis added). That is, where the claim is based solely on the medical or functional disability, no evidence need be supplied as to loss of ability to work. "However, in some cases, despite a partial functional loss of a scheduled member, the claimant's industrial or occupational disability or loss of wage earning capacity controls his degree of disability." Id. (emphasis added). That is, it will sometimes be the case that evidence of a greater occupational disability than would be indicated by the medical evidence...

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