Minnesota Supreme Court Awards Total Disability Benefits to Bricklayer in Lawsuit Against North American Life & Casualty Company

The Minnesota Supreme Court awarded total disability benefits to a bricklayer who had filed a lawsuit against North American Life & Casualty Company (“NALCC”) for total disability benefits. The Court found that despite the bricklayer returning to part time work after his injury, he still met the definition of total disability under the NALCC policy and was entitled to benefits.

Background

Richard Blazek worked his way up from a masonry helper through a bricklayer apprenticeship to his journeyman’s card. He then went into business for himself as a masonry contractor who was in high demand by contractors for both commercial and residential projects. Blazek often worked 18 hour days and even weekends. At the peak of his business, Blazek employed up to six bricklayers in addition to himself plus helpers for each one.

Blazek purchased health and accident insurance from NALCC in 1952.

On January 14, 1953, Blazek suffered an injury on the job while working as a helper for one of his bricklayers. He continued working that day and experienced more pain when he went home. After contacting a doctor and seeking conservative treatment, Blazek underwent surgery for a prolapsed disc. Blazek experienced minimal relief, requiring a spinal fusion, as well as the use of a back brace that resulted in open sores all over his back. Upon his return from the hospital, Blazek received payments from NALCC, which were subsequently terminated for failure to be under the regular care of a physician.

From 1953 to 1954, Blazek could not work. He then returned to bricklaying as a contractor during most of 1955 for 20 hours per week and often missed work due to back pain.

The Court’s Decision

Under the policy language, Blazek’s inability to perform some types of business related to his occupation would not entitle him to total disability. Because his occupation was that of a brick and stone contractor on the application for coverage, and his duties were listed as “supervisory and brick laying,” the evidence was clear that he was unable to do any supervisory work and minimal labor work.

The Court found that, in an own occupation disability policy, total disability did not mean absolute physical inability to perform any duties relating to the occupation. Rather, it meant the inability to perform substantially or to some material extent the material duties of the occupation in a customary and usual manner, with substantial continuity.

Accordingly, the court ruled in Blazek’s favor.

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