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To interpret the current LIBs statute, appeals court approves definition of “imbecility” from dictionary published when William Howard Taft was President  

The El Paso court of appeals has provided new guidance for interpreting the term “incurable imbecility” in Texas Labor Code section 408.161 pertaining to eligibility for Lifetime Income Benefits. In El Paso Independent School District v. Portillo, the court approved of a definition of imbecility from a 1910 edition of Black’s Law Dictionary.

The dispute arose when Alejandro Portillo, who worked for EPISD as a heating and air conditioning technician, climbed a ladder to assist a coworker and the coworker fell on top of him, causing Portillo to suffer a head injury. He received medical treatment at a rehabilitation facility for five months and thereafter experienced continuing headaches and dizziness which caused him to lose his balance and fall. Although he was eventually released to return to work in a semi-sedentary position at EPISD, he was not able to return to his prior job as an HVAC technician and subsequently chose to retire from the school district. He applied for LIBs on the ground that the injury left him with incurable imbecility. He lost at the Division but appealed to district court where a jury agreed that he was entitled to LIBs and the trial court entered judgment in his favor. 

On appeal, EPISD argued (among other things) that the jury charge contained an erroneous definition of “imbecility” because (1) it was based on an excerpt of the definition of that term in the dictionary from 1910 and (2) it was different than the definition used by the Administrative Law Judge at the Division, thereby changing the issue to be decided by the jury and “moving the goalposts” in Portillo’s favor. The court of appeals rejected both arguments and affirmed the trial court’s judgment that he suffers from “incurable imbecility.” 

In doing so, the court of appeals explained why it approved of a definition from 1910. It noted that words can change meaning over time – a concept known as “semantic drift” – so to construe the Legislature’s intent in using a statutorily undefined term it is appropriate to consider how the term was defined in dictionaries published as close in time to the enactment of the statute as possible. Since the Legislature added the term “imbecility” to the statute in 1917, the use of a dictionary from 1910, it said, is appropriate.  

The definition of “imbecility” given by the trial court and approved by the court of appeals is the following:
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. 
Ahem . . . apparently, people talked differently in 1910. It was, after all, a different time. William Howard Taft was President and the maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 – 12 mph.

It may be time for the Legislature to update the statute.