Minnesota Attorney Wins Lawsuit For Total Disability Benefits Before State Supreme Court Against Commercial Insurance Company of Newark

A Minnesota attorney wins lawsuit before the Minnesota Supreme Court for total disability benefits against Commercial Insurance Company of Newark (“CICN”).

Background

Walter Laidlaw was an energetic, high-strung, hardworking attorney who maintained an active solo law practice handling mostly trial work. Laidlaw purchased a “Professional Men’s Disability Policy” in 1960 with CICN. The policy paid a certain amount in the event of his death or dismemberment and weekly payments in the event he became disabled. Disability payments were to continue for up to five years for any occupational disability that prevented Laidlaw from performing the duties of the occupation he was engaged in at the time of the accident. The disability payments were to continue for his lifetime for any general disability that prevented Laidlaw from engaging in any gainful employment for which he was suited.

Four years later, on June 19, 1964, Laidlaw suffered an injury to his left wrist when he was involved in a power lawnmower accident. Laidlaw’s left hand was virtually severed at the wrist and had to be reattached through surgical intervention. The hand became practically useless and appeared as a claw. The injury to Laidlaw’s wrist also caused permanent severe pain as well as psychological problems. Laidlaw was rendered totally disabled from his own occupation and any gainful occupation.

Since the injury, Laidlaw suffered from chronic pain, anxiety, depression, as well as other symptoms. While he made some attempts to work, they were short-lived and followed by long periods of inactivity. His law practice deteriorated, closing his Minneapolis practice in 1966. Despite his irregular law practice since the injury, Laidlaw earned substantial income.

The Court’s Review of Laidlaw’s Claim

CICN received notice of Laidlaw’s accident shortly after it happened and first received proof of loss in January 1965. CICN then investigated the claim and in March of that year paid total disability benefits through October. In May 1965, CICN made an additional payment through December. CICN then made several requests, which Laidlaw tried to comply with, but no further payments were made. Laidlaw eventually filed suit against CICN. In November 1975, trial began and the court held Laidlaw was totally disabled in both the occupational and general sense of the term as a result of his psychological issues due to his accident and deformed hand. CICN appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, finding that “total disability does not mean a state of absolute helplessness or inability to perform any task relating to one’s employment.” Specifically, when it is determined in the context of disability from one’s:

  • Occupational disability: it is the inability to perform the substantial and material parts of one’s occupation in (1) the customary and usual manner, and (2) with substantial continuity;
  • General disability: it is the inability to perform the substantial and material parts of any gainful occupation with reasonable continuity.

The Minnesota Supreme Court found that the mere fact that Laidlaw was earning some income did not negate that he was totally disabled. The Court further noted that total disability from an occupation is to be measured by the absence of the person’s earning capacity and not the absence of income. In short, Laidlaw was totally disabled even if he earned some income during his period of disability.

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