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On June 13, 2014, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals issued its opinion in Alabama Forrest Products Industry Workmen’s Compensation Self Insurer’s Fund v. Harris. In 1990, Harris sustained a severe work-related injury to his pelvis and right leg. As a result of his injuries, Harris was permanently and severely limited in his lifting, bending, stooping, squatting, climbing, and walking. Those limitations allegedly prevent him from performing ordinary activities of daily living without assistance. Since his injury, Harris’s daughter had been assisting him in getting in and out of bed, using the bathroom, bathing, dressing, administering his medications, and preparing meals. In the fall of 2011, Harris sent notice to his employer’s insurer, Alabama Forrest Products, that he wanted his future son-in-law to replace his daughter as his designated care giver. However, Alabama Forrest Products later discovered that the future son-in-law was employed full time in another town, and stopped paying him to take care of Harris. Harris then filed a declaratory judgement action, requesting that the trial Court order Alabama Forrest Products to reinstate the payments.
Alabama Forrest Products took the deposition of Harris’s authorized treating physician, who stated that Harris continued to require assistance with activities of daily living. The doctor also testified that although the attendant care provided by Harris’s daughter in the past had not improved his underlying physical condition and further attendant care would not improve his condition, it did allow and would continue to allow Harris to maintain his function and prevent deterioration of his condition. The doctor further testified that without in home attendant care provided by his family, Harris would have to be admitted into a skilled nursing facility. Based on the testimony of Harris’s family members and his doctor, the trial Court ordered Alabama Forrest Products to reinstate the payments, and Alabama Forrest Products appealed.
On appeal, Alabama Forrest Products argued that an injured employee has no right to payment for attendant care based on the holdings inOsorio v. K & D Erectors, Inc. and Ex parte City of Guntersville, which previously held that employers were only responsible to reimburse an employee for services designed to improve his condition. Harris argued that the case ofEx parte Mitchell overruled Osorio, in that it held that preventive and functional aids aimed at preventing the deterioration of an employee’s condition or improving his function are also compensable.
In its analysis, the Court of Appeals noted that Alabama Administrative Code Rule 480-5-5-.30 provides that authorized services by non-professional family members may be reimbursable when certain conditions are met. Based on this, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial Court’s decision and ordered Alabama Forrest Products to reinstate payment to Harris’s family for his in-home care.
MY TWO CENTS
Given the potential impact this decision on the cost of workers’ compensation claims, I expect that Alabama Forrest Products will petition the Supreme Court for review. If this decision stands, it could increase the costs of many workers’ compensation claims by over $21,000 per year (based on current minimum wage). One possible end-around that the Court of Appeals mentioned, but did not address (because the issue was not raised), would be to challenge the Department of Labor’s authority to promulgate and enforce the provisions of Rule 480-5-5-.30. The Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act does not explicitly provide for non-medical treatment such as the services at issue in this case, so the question is whether the Act gives the Department of Labor the authority to require benefits that were not specifically enumerated by the legislature in the Act.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson, LLC. Fish Nelson is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 332-3414.