In 2002, Tessa Washek sustained catastrophic injuries while working for the employer when her vehicle was struck by a semi-truck. The employee was rendered paraplegic, resulting in a 94.6496 percent permanent partial disability and was permanently and totally disabled. The employer and its insurer admitted liability and have paid associated benefits and expenses.
In 2015, the parties litigated the compensability of the base cost of a 2014 Toyota Sienna accessible van purchased in October 2014. The employee claimed reimbursement for the vehicle as either medical expenses or rehabilitation expenses. The employer and insurer denied the claims for the base costs of the vehicle. In Findings and Order served and filed July 24, 2015, a compensation judge denied the base costs of the vehicle as medical expenses and denied reimbursement for the cost of the 2014 vehicle as a rehabilitation expense on the basis that it was premature to determine whether the vehicle was likely to assist the employee in returning to employment compatible with her education, skills, and disability.
In March 2016, the employee’s rehabilitation plan was amended to include having an employment specialist develop job leads when the employee was medically able. On July 11, 2016, the employee was offered, and accepted, a position at Shopko. The employee lives in Battle Lake, Minnesota, where there is no public handicapped accessible transportation available. On April 10, 2017, the employee filed a claim petition for payment of the base cost of the 2014 Toyota Sienna.
The employer and insurer presented a conflict in the law, contrasting the decision in Wong v. Won Ton Foods with Langa v. Fleischmann-Kurth Malting Co., arguing that Langa must be overruled. In Wong, the employee, who was quadriplegic as the result of a work injury, had a strong desire to return to work. This court affirmed the award of the cost of an accessible vehicle as a rehabilitation expense because the vehicle would rehabilitate the employee and enable the employee “to function independently and to seek and engage in employment compatible with his education, employment skills and disability.” The court further concluded that the compensation judge reasonably found that the employee would benefit from vocational rehabilitation services and that “a handicap-equipped van would be useful in restoring the employee to a job related to his former employment or in another work area.” The Minnesota Supreme Court summarily affirmed this decision.
In Langa, the Court addressed a slightly different issue. It held that the cost of child care incurred before an employee was in rehabilitation was not reimbursable as a medical expense under Minn. Stat. § 176.135 since it was not provided for in the statute. The employer and insurer contend that the base cost of an accessible vehicle is likewise not a compensable vocational expense under the Workers’ Compensation Act, arguing that the statute makes no mention of a vehicle as a compensable cost and inferring that the legislature did not intend for a vehicle to be compensable without express legislative authorization. By allowing reimbursement for a vehicle as a rehabilitation expense, the employer and insurer argue that this court has exceeded its authority.
The Court in the instant action held that even though vehicle cost is not in the statute, it still is a compensable rehabilitation expense. There are many things not identified in the statute that are compensable; a vehicle is merely one of many. The Court recognized that the instant case and Wong both address a highly unusual situation involving a severely injured employee with paralysis who is in vocational rehabilitation, is physically able to work, is highly motivated to work, and needs an accessible vehicle in order to attain vocational goals. Given the unique facts of this case, the Court concluded that the base cost of the vehicle was a compensable cost that is reasonable and necessary to implement the employee’s rehabilitation plan and to enable the employee to engage in sustained employment.