Workers’ compensation benefits sometimes include payment for medical equipment for the injured employee. In this case, the equipment in question is a walk-in bathtub.
Joe Tennison, a 30-year employee of Flanagan Lumber in Alabama, suffered a lumbar back injury while at work. Tennison sought workers’ comp benefits and reached a settlement agreement with his former employer.
Flanagan Lumber agreed to pay Tennison’s future medical expenses resulting from his injury as required by Alabama law.
Tennison saw Dr. John Roberts, a pain-management specialist, who treated him for residual nerve pain in his left leg that was related to the work injury. At the time he saw Dr. Roberts, Tennison had reached maximum medical improvement.
About three years after his injury, Tennison asked Dr. Roberts about obtaining a walk-in bathtub. The doctor noted in his medical record that Tennison:
“is unsteady and unable to step over side and in and out of a regular tub. He believes it would benefit to get in water and do general strengthening exercises rather than having to go to water therapy.”
A month later, Dr. Roberts provided a letter to Flanagan Lumber’s workers’ comp insurance carrier, stating:
“I believe because of Mr. Tennison’s significant disability and deconditioned body that a walk-in bathtub is very reasonable in his situation. I believe this would avoid future falls getting in and out of a tub shower.”
Dr. Roberts also said soaking in warm water in a walk-in tub could also provide Tennison with some temporary pain relief. However, the doctor also said Tennison’s condition wouldn’t deteriorate if he didn’t have the special tub.
The cost of installing the walk-in tub would be $18,500. Flanagan Lumber suggested an alternative, a shower transfer bench that would cost $111.
Tennison took his case to a trial court which ruled that the “walk-in bathtub recommended by the authorized treating physician is reasonably necessary medical apparatus that must be provided.”
Flanagan Lumber decided to fight the lower court ruling at the Alabama Court of Appeals.
Was it ‘reasonably necessary?’
Alabama state law says an employer shall pay for “reasonably necessary medical and surgical treatment and attention, physical rehabilitation, medicine, medical and surgical supplies, crutches, artificial members, and other apparatus as the result of an accident arising out of and in the course of employment.”
Flanagan Lumber argued a walk-in bathtub didn’t qualify as an “other apparatus” under Alabama workers’ comp law.
The company also argued that, even if the tub did qualify, the trial court lacked evidence to conclude it was reasonably necessary in Tennison’s case.
Alabama law doesn’t provide a definition for “other apparatus.” However, the state’s supreme court previously ruled that to be considered “other apparatus,” the item must be intended to:
- improve the injured employee’s condition
- prevent further deterioration of the employee’s condition, or
- relieve the employee from the effect of his condition by restoring the employee to a basic level of appearance or functioning.
The supreme court also said this must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
In one previous case, a court decided a motorized scooter did qualify, but a lift to get the scooter into a vehicle did not.
The appeals court noted that previous cases recognized the use of specialized tubs to treat injured employees.
However, in this case, the appeals court said the walk-in tub wouldn’t improve Tennison’s condition. Dr. Roberts testified he didn’t believe anything would improve Tennison’s condition.
Also, the potential temporary relief of pain didn’t qualify as improving Tennison’s condition.
And the doctor’s prediction that the walk-in tub might prevent Tennison from falling? The court said there was no evidence presented in the case that Tennison had fallen getting into or out of a bathtub.
Therefore, the appeals court found the trial court’s ruling that the walk-in tub met the definition of “other apparatus” wasn’t supported by the evidence.
But for another injured worker, the ruling might be different, according to the court:
“We do not conclude that a walk-in bathtub can never meet the definition of an ‘other apparatus;’ we conclude only that the testimony does not establish that the walk-in bathtub was reasonably necessary under the facts of this case.”
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments.
(Flanagan Lumber Company, Inc. v. Joe Tennison, Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, No. 212911, 8/22/14)