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A Successful California Disability Insurance Claim Does Not Require “Absolute Helplessness”

One of the most hotly disputed areas among California disability lawyers focuses on the definition of “total disability” in private long-term disability insurance policies. An insurance company will routinely deny coverage, relying on policy language that, in its view, requires that the employee not only suffer from a disability but also that the disability prevents any type of work at all. These wrongful denials usually result in a dispute between residual disability and total disability. The difference in dispute is often several hundred thousand or millions of dollars. Disabled employees have successfully challenged these denials of coverage by convincing courts that the definition of totally disabled is not as strict as the insurance companies would like.

California Law Regarding Total Disability is Well Settled and Pro-Claimant

A California appellate court addressed this issue in Joyce v. United Insurance Company of America. The plaintiff in that case worked as a toolmaker at the Stanford University Electronics Laboratory. In 1957, he bought a disability insurance policy from United Insurance that would pay him $100 a month if he were totally disabled. In late 1957, he injured his shoulder while moving equipment. A month later, he hurt himself again. This time, he injured his right arm while moving a heavy-duty vise. He tried to return to work six months later but could not work more than a few minutes at a time. As a result, his employer fired him because he could not perform his job duties.

United Insurance denied benefits, claimed the employee’s total disability ended the moment he returned to work. But in California, “total disability” does not mean an “absolute state of helplessness.” Instead, it requires only that the insured cannot perform the “substantial and material acts” necessary to work in the “usual or customary way.” The employee argued that he couldn’t make tools in the usual or customary way because his injured arm would not allow him to move machinery or use his arm for more than a few minutes at a time.

California Disability Insurance Claimant Wins

The California appellate court held that the employee was totally disabled under California law. Even though the employee returned to work twice, the court pointed to the fact that the employee could not perform “substantial and material acts” to work in the “usual or customary way.” And, under California law, a “totally disabled” claimant does not lose this status simply because he can perform sporadic tasks. As the claimant’s attempts to resume work were short-lived, the court properly found the employee should receive disability benefits. If you have been denied disability benefits, contact our California disability attorney for a free consultation.

Joyce v. United Ins. Co., 202 Cal. App. 2d 654 (1962).

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