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Do You Know the Rule? What ‘Imbecility’ Means for Lifetime Economic Benefits in Texas

11 Jun, 2023 Chris Parker

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Austin, TX (WorkersCompensation.com) -- Incurable imbecility is one of the bases for an injured worker to obtain lifetime economic benefits in Texas. While the regulations that address the issue don’t define the term, courts have offered some clarification.

Under Texas Labor Code Sec. 408.161, an injured worker may be entitled to lifetime economic benefits in eight circumstances. The employee may secure such benefits if she experienced any of the following:

(1) Total and permanent loss of sight in both eyes;
(2) Loss of both feet at or above the ankle;
(3) Loss of both hands at or above the wrist;
(4) Loss of one foot at or above the ankle, and loss of one hand, at or above the wrist;
(5) An injury to the spine that causes permanent and complete paralysis of both arms, both legs, or one arm and one leg;
(6) A physically traumatic injury to the brain resulting in incurable insanity or imbecility;
(7) Third degree burns that cover at least 40 percent of the body and require grafting; or
(8) Third degree burns covering the majority of either both hands or one hand and the face.

Since the regulations do not offer a definition for "imbecility,” how does a jury or judge decide whether the worker is meets the standard?

Workers' Comp 101: Old -- and often pejorative -- terminology has a tendency to persist until legislatures do something about it. That is the case in Texas with the term "imbecility." As the court explained in Chamul v. Amerisure, 486 S.W. 3d 116 (Tex. Ct. App. 2016), "Whatever meaning the Legislature attached to the term 'imbecility' when it included the standard in the lifetime-income-benefits provision in 1917, it is clear that the term has little medical significance today. The medical experts ... agree that the term 'imbecility' is no longer part of the language of medicine for diagnosing patients or developing treatment plans to address their afflictions.”

In one recent case, El Paso Independent School District v. Portello, No. 08-21-00021-CV. (Tex. Ct. App. 01/30/23), the appeals court noted that the trial court offered the following definition of imbecility when it instructed the jury:

A more or less advanced decay and feebleness of the intellectual faculties; that weakness of mind which, without depriving the person entirely of the use of his reason, leaves only the faculty of conceiving the most common and ordinary ideas and such as relate almost always to physical wants and habits.

Those instructions were correct, the appeals court found. It noted that a court must focus on the definitions of "imbecility" that were in effect from the early 1900s. Those definitions all center on two critical factors:

(1) A "weakness" of mind; and
(2) A "feebleness of the intellectual faculties." 

“And here, the trial court included both factors,” the appeals court wrote.

However, the appeals court indicated that to qualify for lifetime benefits based on incurable imbecility, a court need not find that the worker is:

(1) Permanently unemployable; or
(2) Suffering from severe cognitive dysfunction.


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