Dependents of Public Safety Employees can collect Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits in addition to State Retirement Benefits

As a general rule, workers’ compensation benefits for governmental employees are reduced by the amount of “similar” benefits received under a state retirement or pension plan.  L&E § 9-610.  Notwithstanding this standard, the Maryland General Assembly has carved out a statutory exception for certain public safety employees.  Pursuant to Section 9-503(e)(1) of the Labor & Employment Article of the Maryland Code, qualifying public safety employees who are entitled to workers’ comp on account of an occupational disease “shall receive the benefits in addition to any benefits that the individual or the dependents of the individual are entitled to receive under the retirement system in which the individual was a participant at the time of the claim.”  It is important to note that L&E § 9-503(e) only applies to cases of occupational disease; it does not reach cases involving accidental personal injuries.

In its current form, the statute clearly applies to the dependents of a covered employee—but this was not always the case.  Prior to 2007, there was no reference to dependents in L&E § 9-503(e).  For that reason, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the exception to L&E § 9-610, embodied in L&E § 9-503(e), applied solely to the covered employees themselves, and not to their dependents.  Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 387 Md. 1 (2005) (holding that a widow of a firefighter who would have otherwise been covered under L&E § 9-503(e) was not entitled to the full amount of workers’ compensation death benefits, as such benefits were to be reduced under L&E § 9-610 by the amount received in pension survivorship benefits).

In 2007, the Maryland General Assembly amended L&E § 9-503(e) to expressly encompass dependents.  As such, dependents of qualifying public safety employees are now entitled to death benefits that are paid in addition to any retirement benefits.  The only qualifier to this rule is that the death benefits are to “be adjusted so that the weekly total of those benefits and retirement benefits does not exceed the weekly salary” of the public safety employee.  L&E § 9-503(e)(2).

Recently, the Court of Appeals interpreted the 2007 amendments to L&E § 9-503(e) for purposes of determining whether they were intended to have retroactive effect.  Johnson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 430 Md. 368 (2013).  Generally, statutes and amendments thereto are presumed to have prospective effect only, unless consideration of legislative intent clearly suggests otherwise.  That said, where a statute or amendment thereto governs a procedure or remedy, it will apply “to cases pending in court when the statue becomes effective.”  Id. at 381-82 (quoting Pautsch v. Md. Real Estate Comm’n, 423 Md. 229, 263 (2011)).  With respect to the 2007 amendments to L&E § 9-503(e), the Court of Appeals concluded that the legislature effected a “substantive change in the law,” which therefore, applied prospectively onlyJohnson, 430 Md. at 393-94 (“[E]xpanding the class of people who are able to collect dual benefits is a substantive change in the law . . . . [T]he 2007 amendments conferred a benefit on dependents that was previously not available to them. Before the change, the amount of workers’ compensation death benefits paid to the dependents of deceased firefighters was reduced by the amount of the firefighters’ pensions. By amending § 9–503(e), the General Assembly allowed for a larger pool of people—dependents—to be able to collect these dual benefits.”).