The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled Monday that the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act does not authorize an order for an employer to pay an injured worker for home alterations that were never made or to contribute to the purchase of a new home.
Miguel Castaneda-Escobar worked for Ralph Martin Construction. In May 2010, he fell off a roof and injured the back of his neck. The accident left him paraplegic. RMC accepted responsibility for Mr. Castaneda-Escobar’s injuries.
Mr Castaneda-Escobar lived in his brother’s townhouse in Reading. The bedrooms and bathroom were on the second floor and the living room was temporarily converted into his living quarters.
In 2011, a design and construction firm estimated it would cost $119,722 to modify the home with a first-floor addition that included a new bedroom and bathroom. The company suggested that it might be more cost-effective for Mr. CastanedaEscobar to move to a one-story home with wheelchair access.
In November 2018, Mr. Castaneda-Escobar purchased a home for $230,000 in Leesport. He incurred closing costs of $4,158. The home had one bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, but the shower had to be modified to accommodate a wheelchair. RMC replaced Mr. Castaneda-Escobar for the $5,905.04 he spent to modify the bathroom.
In January 2019, RMC filed a petition to determine whether Castaneda-Escobar’s purchase of the Leesport home was a compensable medical expense under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
A workers’ compensation judge found that RMC was not responsible for the cost of the home or the estimated cost of renovating the townhouse. The judge instead held RMC responsible for the closing costs, as the purchase relieved it of the obligation to modify the townhouse. The judge also ordered RMC to pay $5,067 for Mr. Castaneda-Escobar’s legal costs.
The workers’ compensation board ruled that Castaneda-Escobar’s purchase of the Leesport home did not relieve RMC of its obligation to renovate the townhouse. The WCAB ordered RMC to pay the cost of that renovation, with a credit for the $5,905.04 it had already paid for the bathroom renovation at the Leesport home. It also affirmed the WCJ’s award of costs.
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania said the Workers’ Compensation Act obligates an employer to pay for an injured employee’s medicine, hospital care, services, supplies and orthopedic devices and prostheses. Pennsylvania case law has interpreted this duty
such as including the cost of home modifications, but only for the cost of a one-time, minor modification or maintenance of the modification so that the injured worker can use a wheelchair.
The court said there is no precedent that has held that an employer can be held liable for buying an entire house for a plaintiff or paying for alterations that were never completed, and it found that the purchase of a new home expands the phrase “orthopedic appliances ” ” beyond a reasonable construction.
Although the consultants determined that $119,722.21 was required to renovate the townhouse, the court said this did not become Mr. CastanedaEscobar’s “baseline rights”.
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