TESSA M. WASHEK, Employee, v. NEW DIMENSIONS HOME HEALTHCARE and SFM MUT. INS. CO., Employer-Insurer/Appellants.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COURT OF APPEALS
FEBRUARY 7, 2012
RESIDENTIAL REMODELING; STATUTES CONSTRUED - MINN. STAT. § 176.137. Although it was undisputed that the recommended lift system was medically reasonable and necessary for the employee, and although that system could not be “furnished” within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 176.135 without major structural remodeling of the employee’s residence, an insurer’s liability for necessary structural remodeling is capped at $60.000.00 under Minn. Stat. § 176.137, and the necessity of such remodeling does not automatically convert such remodeling into a medical expense compensable under Minn. Stat. § 176.135.
Determined by: Johnson, J., Wilson, J., and Milun, C.J.
Compensation Judge: Bradley J. Behr
Attorneys: David R. Vail, Soderberg & Vail, Minneapolis, MN, for the Respondent. Andrew W. Lynn, Lynn, Scharfenberg & Assocs., Minneapolis, MN, for the Appellants.
THOMAS L. JOHNSON, Judge
The employer and insurer’s appeal from the compensation judge’s determination that the structural modifications to the employee’s residence necessary to install a ceiling mounted track lift system are compensable under Minn. Stat. § 176.135. We reverse.
Tessa M. Washek, the employee, sustained a personal injury on December 18, 2002, arising out of her employment with New Dimensions Home Healthcare, the employer, insured by SFM Mutual Insurance Company. The employee’s injuries included a closed head injury, resulting in cognitive difficulties, internal injuries, and a spinal cord injury that renders her paraplegic. The employee is permanently and totally disabled as a result of her personal injury.
Minn. Stat. § 176.137 provides a benefit of up to $60,000.00 for alteration or remodeling of the residence of a permanently disabled employee. The employee has been confined to a wheelchair since the date of her personal injury and her primary residence has been remodeled to accommodate her disability. The employer has previously paid approximately $58,000 in statutory remodeling expenses.
In March 2009, Jane Hampton, an access specialist and designer, met with the employee in her home to identify current access and safety issues pertaining to the employee’s use of the shower and toilet and to explore access solutions. Ms. Hampton determined that the employee could not independently propel her rolling shower commode chair into the shower without assistance, which she identified as a safety concern that prevented the employee from living independently. She reported further that the area outside of the shower provided insufficient space for the employee to move from her wheelchair into the shower commode chair or to maneuver the wheelchair. Finally, Ms. Hampton reported also that transferring from the wheelchair onto the toilet and shower chair caused skin integrity problems for the employee. Ms. Hampton recommended the installation of a ceiling mounted lift system, which would extend from over the employee’s bed into the bathroom to over the toilet and the shower. Ms. Hampton prepared a report with her recommendation, together with a concept drawing for the lift system. In October 2009, Ms. Hampton prepared a document specifying the nature of the construction work necessary to install the lift system, together with bids from two contractors for the work.
At the request of the insurer, certified accessibility specialist Julee Quarve-Peterson reviewed the recommendations of Ms. Hampton, prepared a report dated May 20, 2009, and testified by deposition on June 2011. Ms. Quarve-Peterson agreed that a ceiling mounted track lift system would significantly reduce the employee’s need for an aide to assist her in transfers and showering, would reduce skin breakdowns during transfers, and would provide greater general independence. She testified that the proposed lift system required a ceiling track to carry the employee from her bedroom into the bathroom to the toilet and the shower. Installation of the ceiling track, Ms. Quarve-Peterson testified, would require several permanent changes in the employee’s residence. Because the track would be mounted in the ceiling, the frames or headers over several doors would have to be raised. Structural supports would also need to be added in the ceiling, capable of supporting five hundred pounds at every point along the track, which would in turn require removal and replacement of the ceiling after installation of the ceiling track. In addition, certain lights and fixtures would have to be moved, which would require relocating some wiring. Ms. Quarve-Peterson testified that the purchase and installation of the ceiling track system would be a medical expense but that the necessary structural changes to the employee’s residence would be remodeling.
In June 2010, the employee filed a medical request seeking payment for a ceiling- mounted lift system. The cost of the system itself, delivered and installed, was estimated at $15,414.00. The employer and insurer admit that this cost is a reasonable and necessary medical expense under Minn. Stat. § 176.135. However, the installation of the lift track system also requires structural modifications to the employee’s home. The employee was provided with two bids for this work, one in the amount of $30,317.00 and the other in the amount of $28,424.00. The employer and insurer assert that these costs constitute remodeling under Minn. Stat. § 176.137, which caps structural remodeling of an employee’s residence at $60,000.00. Having already paid about $58,000.00 in structural remodeling expenses, they contend that their liability for this cost is no more than the approximately $2,000.00 balance remaining under the statute.
The employee’s claim for the costs associated with the installation of the lift system was heard before Compensation Judge Bradley Behr on June 24, 2011. In a Findings and Order filed July 21, 2011, the compensation judge found that the installation of the lift system involved permanent structural changes to the employee’s home, including partial removal of the ceiling, relocation of electrical wires and fixtures, raising of all door headers along the path of the ceiling track, and installation of support trusses. The compensation judge concluded that these structural changes necessary to install the ceiling track were a compensable medical expense under Minn. Stat. § 176.135. Accordingly, the judge ordered the employer and insurer to pay all reasonable costs associated with the track system, including the construction modifications necessary for its installation in the employee’s home. The employer and insurer appeal.
The issue in this case is whether the cost of the structural changes to the employee’s home necessary to the installation of the ceiling mounted track lift system is compensable under Minn. Stat. § 176.135 as a medical expense or whether those changes constitute alteration or remodeling of the employee’s residence under Minn. Stat. § 176.137. The appellants argue that the necessary structural changes to the employee’s home constitute remodeling within the plain meaning of the statute. The employee contends that the purpose of the lift system is not to improve the employee’s mobility in her home but rather to relieve the effects of her injury. Minn. Stat. § 176.135 requires an employer to furnish reasonably required medical treatment and apparatus, she argues, and the cost of the lift system including its installation is a medical expense. We cannot agree.
Since its enactment in 1913, the Workers’ Compensation Act has required the employer to furnish medical treatment to an injured employee. In 1977, Minn. Stat. § 176.137 was enacted to require an employer to furnish to a permanently disabled employee alteration or remodeling of the employee’s principal residence. Clearly, the legislature intended that payment of remodeling expenses was to be a new benefit for injured employees, different from benefits available under Minn. Stat. § 176.135. Since its adoption, however, neither this court nor the supreme court has defined the phrase “alteration or remodeling” or distinguished between remodeling and medical expenses.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines alteration as “a substantial change to real estate, especially to a structure, not involving an addition to or removal of the exterior dimensions of a building’s structural parts.” Black’s Law Dictionary 90 (9th ed. 2009). The 9th edition of Black’s does not define the term “remodel.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the word as “to make over; to rebuild.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary 1529 (2nd ed. 1972). In construing a statute, words and phrases are to be “construed according to rules of grammar and according to their common and approved usage.” Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1). Installation of the lift system would require major structural changes to the employee’s home, including partial removal of the ceiling, relocation of electrical wiring and fixtures, raising of all of the door headers in the path of the track to ceiling level, and installation of additional support trusses. The compensation judge found that these would be permanent structural changes to the employee’s residence. We conclude that these structural changes constitute “alteration or remodeling” within the common usage of those words and the plain meaning of Minn. Stat. § 176.137.
It is undisputed that the installation of the lift system will yield reasonable and necessary medical benefits for the employee. By easing the employee’s transfers, the lift system will help prevent further skin breakdowns and will lessen the repetitive trauma to the employee’s arms. The lift system will also enable the employee to more safely perform transfers that will aide her in continuing to live independently. Moreover, we agree, as the employee contends, that the necessary medical apparatus in this case cannot be “furnished” within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 176.135 until it is installed and available for use by the employee. However, the fact that the lift system is a medical apparatus does not automatically mean that the remodeling required for its installation is also a medical expense. If a major structural change to a residence necessary to install or make usable a piece of medical equipment is construed to constitute a medical expense, Minn. Stat. § 176.137 becomes essentially superfluous. The lift system is not unlike a wheelchair, in that each may be a necessary medical apparatus that the employer must furnish under Minn. Stat. § 176.135. We can no more construe the structural changes at issue in the present case to be medical expenses than we could agree that the costs to widen doorways or install ramps would be medical expenses in a wheelchair case. The fact that the wheelchair may be unusable by an employee without remodeling the residence does not convert remodeling costs into a medical expense.
We conclude that the structural changes necessary to install the lift system in the employee’s residence do constitute remodeling under Minn. Stat. § 176.137. The decision of the compensation judge to the contrary is therefore reversed.
PATRICIA J. MILUN, Judge
I respectfully dissent. This case is before our court on appellate review of findings of fact by a compensation judge at the Office of Administrative Hearings. The issue in this case is whether Minn. Stat. § 176.135 requires the employer and insurer to pay for expenses associated with the installation of a medical device that all parties agree is reasonable and necessary to cure and relieve the effects of the employee’s work related injuries. As the reviewing court, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals is to affirm the findings of the compensation judge unless the findings are “clearly erroneous and unsupported by substantial evidence in view of the entire record as submitted.”
The employee in this case is confined to a wheelchair as a result of paraplegia and is permanently and totally disabled. She filed a medical request for a ceiling track lift system for safer transfers and prevention of skin breakdown. The employer and insurer, stipulating that the ceiling-mounted track system is reasonable and necessary to cure and relieve the effects of the employee’s work related injuries, agreed to pay for the lift. The employer and insurer argue that the installation cost for the lift is only compensable under Minn. Stat. § 176.137, which allows remodeling costs for the home of a disabled employee in order to facilitate mobility and accommodate the employee’s disability, and since there is only approximately $2,000.00 remaining under the limit of that statute, that amount is the extent of their liability for the installation cost.
The compensation judge found the installation of the ceiling track is necessary in order for the employer and insurer to “furnish” the reasonable and necessary lift device and therefore the cost of the installation is a compensable medical expense under Minn. Stat. § 176.135, which requires an employer to furnish reasonable and necessary medical treatment and apparatus. The compensation judge stated
The disputed construction work herein (whether or not defined as “remodeling”) is not solely for the purpose of improving the employee’s mobility in her home. Rather, the lift system has been recommended for a specific medical purpose, to reduce the number of transfers necessary from the employee’s wheelchair to a toilet seat or shower seat. The medical goal is to prevent further skin breakdown and repetitive trauma to the employee’s . . . extremities.
The compensation judge further determined that the lift track system was of no use to the employee if it was not installed. The judge concluded
In statutory terms, the reasonable and necessary medical equipment has not been “furnished’ to the employee until it has been installed and is available for use. In this case, installation requires some construction modifications; however whether the work is defined as “remodeling” is not the controlling factor. The work is necessary to provide the employee with reasonable and necessary medical treatment and is compensable under Minn. Stat. § 176.135.
The employee’s current method of access to the commode or shower seat poses numerous physical and medical difficulties beyond a mere matter of convenience. The lift track system in this case is more than a facilitator of mobility and accommodation; it is a necessity in the employee’s ability to function physically. Substantial evidence supports the compensation judge’s finding that the cost for the installation work is reasonable and necessary and is a compensable medical expense under Minn. Stat. § 176.135. Given our standard of review, I would affirm the decision of the compensation judge.
 The statute provides, in part, that “the employer shall furnish to an employee who is permanently disabled because of a personal injury suffered in the course of employment with that employer such alteration or remodeling of the employee’s principal residence as is reasonably required to enable the employee to move freely into and throughout the residence and to otherwise adequately accommodate the disability.” Minn. Stat. § 176.137.
 The 6th edition of Black’s defined the term “remodel” as “model anew; reconstruct, recast, reform, reshape, reconstruct, to make over in a somewhat different way.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1295 (6th ed. 1990).
 Minn. Stat. § 176.421.
 Memorandum at 4.