W. William Leaphart

HELENA, Mont.(Legal Newsline)-A state law that says that worker's compensation benefits must end when one reaches retirement age has been upheld by the Montana Supreme Court.

In a 5-2 ruling Tuesday, the high court's majority said that the benefits were designed to assist disabled workers during their "work life" and not into retirement.

"While this may not always seem fair, it is not unconstitutional. By acting to terminate benefits as it does, the law, rationally advances the governmental purpose of providing wage-loss benefits that bear a reasonable relationship to actual wages lost," Justice W. William Leaphart wrote for the majority.

Montana State Fund president Laurence Hubbard says he is pleased with the decision, noting that if the court had gone the other way it could have cost as much as $300 million for current and future claims.

"It brings some closure to an issue that we've all been concerned about for some time. This had a very large potential cost, not only to current insurance rates, but also for claims that remain open." Hubbard said.

Jim Hunt, who represented the injured workers, had this to say: "Older workers who have lost their ability to work and are consequently some of the most vulnerable people in our society have lost an important constitutional protection."

Hunt had argued that by ending the benefits was the same as age discrimination.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Brian Morris said that work comp benefits are not the same as Social Security benefits and therefore should not be the deciding factor in ending the benefits.

"The court ... employs a toothless analysis that permits the Legislature to advance the perfectly legitimate task of protecting the economic viability of the workers' compensation system through the illegitimate means of penalized injured workers who have qualified for Social Security," Morris wrote.

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