An employer can't escape paying for services to an injured worker solely because the help he needs is provided by his wife, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In the first decision of its kind in Arizona, the justices rejected the arguments by the Phelps Dodge Corp. that its obligations to pay for the care to Sabino Carbajal do not extend to those things done for him by his wife, Celia. Attorneys for the company pointed out she is not a licensed health care provider.
But Justice Rebecca White Berch, writing the unanimous decision, said the company is ignoring the plain language of the workers' compensation system.
She said it requires employers to pay for the services needed by an employee injured in a work-related accident. Berch said it is legally irrelevant who provides those services - and that the state Court of Appeals was wrong to conclude otherwise.
Court records show that Carbajal, who had been an employee of Phelps Dodge, suffered head and spinal injuries in 1999. The right half of his body is paralyzed and he has cognitive problems, though he can inform people of his needs.
A doctor testified that he cannot live alone and requires round-the-clock supervision because he is at risk of falling if he tries to get up and stand. The doctor also said he cannot dress or bathe himself, and someone needs to help him to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
While Carbajal now lives in a facility, he initially lived at home.
Phelps Dodge had provided an attendant to help him dress and bathe in the morning and, on weekdays, take him to a rehabilitation center. There also was help with exercises prior to getting him ready for bed.
The rest of the time, though, he was under his wife's care. Aside from supervising him when an attendant was not present, she gave him his medication in the morning, specially prepared his food, cleaned him when he returned from day care soiled, and moved him between his wheelchair and his bed, his toilet or the recliner.
There also were other chores during the night, including cleaning him and checking his oxygen level.
Berch said the legislature clearly intended for employers to provide ongoing care for injured workers. More to the point, the justices pointed out that many of the services Celia Carbajal was providing were identical to those being done by the attendant, such as bathing and dressing her husband.
"Nothing in the statute hinges compensability of services on the fact of licensure,'' Berch wrote, even though certain kinds of medical care can only be provided by someone with a state license. What all that leaves, the justice wrote, is that the only reason the company refused to pay Celia Carbajal was that she was the injured worker's wife.
"The statute creates no such distinction," Berch said.
"The statute speaks only in terms of goods and services," she continued. "The compensability of services inquiry should focus on the nature of the services provided, not on the identity of the service provider."
Put more simply, Berch said if an injured worker requires certain services, then the employer has to provide them.
"If the employer fails to do so and thus puts that burden on the injured employee's spouse, compensation for the necessary services is required by statute," she said.
Monday's ruling sends the case back to an administrative law judge to determine if the services she was providing were "reasonably required," without regard to her status as the worker's wife.