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NM Supreme Court rules workers’ comp must treat physical and mental injuries the same

Paul Diaconu

The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday ruled the Workers’ Compensation Act violates the state Constitution by treating benefits for physical and mental injuries differently. Benefits are capped for mental health conditions that stem from getting physically hurt at work in ways they aren’t if that initial injury leads to another physical injury.

Special education teacher Ana Cardenas injured her knee while working at Aztec Municipal School District and later, as a result, also experienced a mental injury.

She was granted 150 weeks of workers’ comp for her knee, but no additional benefits for the second injury simply because it was mental in nature. Had it been physical, like injuring another body part while compensating for her knee, it would have been evaluated as a separate injury and eligible for its own payout.

During oral arguments in July, Chief Justice Shannon Bacon said the difference in how benefits are allotted for mental impairments that follow getting hurt at work versus physical ones appeared “arbitrary.”

“The fact that you have no analysis happening for the related subsequent mental injury — that’s the equal protection problem here,” she said.

She also called the distinction between physical and mental injuries “antiquated.”

“It’s based on this fundamental misunderstanding about the length and duration of mental injury,” she said.

Council for the school district and its insurer argued capping the injuries differently was justified to maintain the predictability of claims and save the workers’ compensation fund from being overly taxed. In their opinion, the Justices called those “generic, unsupported assertions.”

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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