(TNS) — How much money you receive if you're injured on the job in Kansas may hinge on the outcome of a court battle over arcane technical manuals.
The fight holds big consequences for thousands of Kansas workers in jobs where injuries are a real possibility.
A state appeals court recently struck down a Kansas law that it said unconstitutionally limited compensation to injured workers. Supporters and opponents of the law are waiting to see if the Kansas Supreme Court will review the decision and possibly keep the law alive.
The fight over the law centers on Howard Johnson, a U.S. Food Service delivery driver, who in October 2015 injured his neck while trying to dislodge a partially frozen trailer door at work.
Johnson's doctor used guidelines required by the law to evaluate his injury that resulted in a payment of $14,810.
But if Johnson had been evaluated under older guidelines that Kansas used prior to 2015, he would have been paid $61,713.
"Had Johnson been injured before January 1, 2015, rather than nine months later, the award would have been nearly $47,000 greater," the Court of Appeals said in its decision.
Thousands of Kansas workers are injured each year and seek workers compensation. Guidelines for evaluating injuries from the American Medical Association play a key role in determining how much money workers receive.
Kansas began using the Sixth Edition of the guidelines in 2015. Previously, the state had used the Fourth Edition.
Critics say the current guidelines too often unfairly limit compensation. Supporters defend the Sixth Edition as more up to date.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, all three major candidates for governor — Republican Kris Kobach, Democrat Laura Kelly and independent Greg Orman — agree the current guidelines go too far.
"I think there's a misconception out there that somehow the next edition is always better and that's not the case," Kobach said.
Kelly's campaign said she supports the Fourth Edition and noted that she voted against moving Kansas to the Sixth Edition. Orman said the Sixth Edition "clearly went too far" and called on lawmakers to move the state to a system "that is fair to workers, and which is not overly burdensome to employers."
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce supports the Sixth Edition, however. The organization points to medical progress made since the Fourth Edition was released.
"Our members support using the 6th edition, the most recent edition, which takes into consideration advancement in modern medicine developed since the 1993 release of the 4th edition. Because employers continue to increase focus on workplace safety, the number of workplace injuries continue to decrease annually," Alan Cobb, Chamber president and CEO, said in a statement.
The dispute over the guidelines has pitted two of the state's top Republicans against each other, with Kobach opposing the current guidelines and Attorney General Derek Schmidt supporting them.
Schmidt formally asked the Supreme Court last week to review the state law that requires the use of the Sixth Edition. Schmidt's legal brief in the case calls the Court of Appeals decision striking down the law "skewed."
In his brief, Schmidt's office notes the Kansas Medical Society supported the Sixth Edition and says the newer guidelines increased impairment ratings for some conditions, which would produce larger payments.
"The Legislature listened to the debate, found the proponents of the Sixth Edition more persuasive, and reasonably concluded based on the testimony that the Sixth Edition should be adopted," the brief says. "The Court of Appeals should not have second-guessed the Legislature's resolution of this issue."
Lawmakers supportive of the Fourth Edition have made unsuccessful attempts to return Kansas to the earlier guidelines. But Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who supports the Sixth Edition, contends the stakes are now higher because of the Supreme Court could strike down the state's entire workers compensation law if it takes the case.
Without a workers compensation system, employees would be free to sue their employers over injuries.
"The chickens are coming home to roost now," Carmichael said.
Rep. Les Mason, a McPherson Republican who chairs the House commerce and labor committee, said his committee held a hearing on reverting back to the Fourth Edition. He said proponents and opponents were evenly split.
In the end, Mason said he found the Sixth Edition preferable from a pro-business standpoint. But he said he also thinks it's better for workers, too.
"The Fourth Edition was kind of a rubber stamp," Mason said. "OK, you blew out your rotator cuff, you get X number of dollars or you get X percentage of disability. The Sixth Edition was moving more toward outcomes. So you may get fully rehabilitated and not get as big of a reward but if you have 100 percent impairment then you might get a huge settlement."
The Court of Appeals disagreed. It said the Fourth Edition allowed physicians to use their experience and skill in using the guidelines, but the Sixth Edition provides concrete ratings that "leave no room for the knowledge and expertise" of the physician.
Under the Sixth Edition, impairment ratings are 40 percent to 70 percent lower than those provided by the earlier guidelines, the court said, though Schmidt disputes those figures.
"The Legislature went too far" in adopting the Sixth Edition, the court said.
No timeline has been set for the Supreme Court to decide whether to take the case.