No lump sum for woman who flattened hand

Jessica M. Karmasek Jan. 21, 2011, 11:00am


PIERRE, S.D. (Legal Newsline) - The South Dakota Supreme Court has denied a lump sum award of future disability benefits to a woman who smashed her hand in her employer's pizza dough flattener.

The Court, in its 19-page opinion filed Jan. 12, affirmed, in part, and reversed, in part, a decision by the Circuit Court of the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Hughes County.

The woman, Michele Stuckey, was employed by the Pizza Ranch restaurant in Sturgis, S.D.

While at work on Oct. 8, 2003, Stuckey's left hand was crushed in a machine used to flatten pizza dough.

She returned to work following the injury and worked until Feb. 23, 2004.

By that time, her condition had deteriorated significantly, and she was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

As a result of her injury, Stuckey is now unable to care for herself, her family and her residence. She also requires assistance for personal care, meal preparation and housekeeping.

Stuckey began workers' compensation proceedings to try to secure any future benefits needed.

However, the Department of Labor did not award her a lump sum of future disability benefits, but instead awarded a partial lump sum to cover her attorneys fees, costs and litigation expenses. It also approved a life care plan for her future medical care.

The circuit court then reversed the department's denial of a lump sum award of future disability benefits but affirmed all other aspects of the department's decision.

Justice Glen A. Severson, who authored the Court's opinion, said there is "little dispute" that some course of future treatment is "reasonable" and "medically necessary."

"The Department thus approved the course of treatment set forth in the life care plan as reasonable and medically necessary but did not 'award' a lump sum for the future medical expenses associated with it," he wrote for the Court.

In South Dakota, injured employees have a statutory right to the payment of the ongoing medical expenses related to their work-related injuries, but they are not entitled to a lump sum payment of those expenses, Severson pointed out.

An injured employee's medical expenses are to be paid as they are incurred, he explained.

"When Stuckey incurs medical expenses in the future, Employer may reimburse her or challenge the expenses as not necessary or suitable and proper," the Court wrote.

"Although we discourage the use of the term 'life care plan' in workers' compensation proceedings, we affirm the Department's approval of the course of treatment set forth for Stuckey."

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