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Pennsylvania State Police v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Bushta)

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

May 29, 2018

PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE, Appellant
v.
WORKERS' COMPENSATION APPEAL BOARD (BUSHTA), Appellee

          ARGUED: October 18, 2017

          Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered October 26, 2016 at No. 2426 CD 2015, affirming the Order of the Workers' Compensation Appeal Board entered November 3, 2015 at No. A14-1335

          SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY, JJ.

          OPINION

          TODD JUSTICE

         In this discretionary appeal, we consider whether Appellant, the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP"), is entitled to subrogation of benefits that a trooper - who was injured in a motor vehicle accident - was eligible to receive under the Workers' Compensation Act ("WCA")[1] against the trooper's recovery from a third-party tortfeasor pursuant to the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law ("MVFRL").[2] For the reasons that follow, we conclude that PSP does not have a right of subrogation. Accordingly, we affirm the order of the Commonwealth Court.

         As the instant appeal involves the interplay between three Pennsylvania statutes - the WCA, the Heart and Lung Act, [3] and the MVFRL, we first review the applicable language and background of these statutes. The WCA, which applies to both public and private employees, provides compensation to employees who suffer work-related injuries. Under the WCA, an employee who is totally disabled and experiences a complete loss of earning power is entitled to receive benefits in the amount of 66-2/3% of his or her average weekly wages. 77 P.S. § 511.

         Under Section 319 of the WCA, benefits paid to an employee are subject to subrogation by his or her employer:

Where the compensable injury is caused in whole or in part by the act or omission of a third party, the employer shall be subrogated to the right of the employe, his personal representative, his estate or his dependents, against such third party to the extent of the compensation payable under [the WCA] by the employer.

77 P.S. § 671.

         In contrast to the WCA's provision of partial wages to employees who are injured on the job, the Heart and Lung Act provides certain designated public employees, primarily police and fire personnel, who are injured in the course of their duties, with their full salary until their return to duty. Specifically, the Heart and Lung Act provides:

any member of the State Police Force[:]
who is injured in the performance of his duties including, in the case of firemen, duty as special fire police, and by reason thereof is temporarily incapacitated from performing his duties, shall be paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania if an employe identified under paragraph (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8) or (12) . . . his full rate of salary, as fixed by ordinance or resolution, until the disability arising therefrom has ceased. All medical and hospital bills, incurred in connection with any such injury, shall be paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania . . . . During the time salary for temporary incapacity shall be paid by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania . . ., any workmen's compensation, received or collected by any such employe for such period, shall be turned over to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania . . . and paid into the treasury thereof, and if such payment shall not be so made by the employe the amount so due the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania . . . shall be deducted from any salary then or thereafter becoming due and owing.

53 P.S. § 637(a)(1), (12).

         As we explained in City of Erie v. W.C.A.B. (Annunziata), 838 A.3d 598, 603 (Pa. 2003), the primary consideration in enacting the Heart and Lung Act was not the best interest of the disabled officer, but, rather, the interest of the municipality in attracting qualified individuals to hazardous occupations. While the Heart and Lung Act is thus often viewed as more generous than the WCA, the wages paid to an injured employee pursuant to the WCA may also include vacation and overtime pay. Id. Further, unlike the WCA, the Heart and Lung Act does not apply to work-related injuries which are permanent, and, while the WCA is to be liberally construed in favor of the injured employee, the Heart and Lung Act must be strictly construed. Id. at 604.

         Finally, given that the Claimant's injury in this case was caused by a motor vehicle accident, the subrogation and recovery provisions of the MVFRL are implicated. Section 1720 provides:

§ 1720. Subrogation
In actions arising out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle, there shall be no right of subrogation or reimbursement from a claimant's tort recovery with respect to workers' compensation benefits, benefits available under section 1711 (relating to required benefits), 1712 (relating to availability of benefits) or 1715 (relating to availability of adequate limits) or benefits paid or payable by a program, group contract or other arrangement whether primary or excess under section 1719 (relating to coordination of benefits).

75 Pa. C.S. § 1720. Relatedly, Section 1722 provides:

ยง 1722. Preclusion of recovering required benefits In any action for damages against a tortfeasor, or in any uninsured or underinsured motorist proceeding, arising out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle, a person who is eligible to receive benefits under the coverages set forth in this subchapter, or workers' compensation, or any program, group contract or other arrangement for payment of benefits as defined in section 1719 (relating to coordination of benefits) shall be precluded from recovering the amount of benefits paid or payable under this subchapter, ...

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