From Casetext: Smarter Legal Research


Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division
Mar 22, 2011
A10A1981 (Ga. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2011)




In this case of first impression, catastrophically injured and paraplegic claimant Carey E. Spires, appealed to the superior court from an award of the Appellate Division of the State Board of Worker's Compensation (the "Board"). The Board's award reversed the decision of an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which required Southern Concrete/Watkins Associated Industries, Inc. and its insurer, Helmsman Management Services (collectively "Southern Concrete") to construct a wheelchair-accessible home upon land owned by Spires, and to title the same to Spires in fee simple. In doing so, the Board found that "[Southern Concrete] is not obligated to build a home for [Spires] on his owned property, and that providing [Spires] a life estate interest in a suitable home, on a location selected by [Southern Concrete] would satisfy [Southern Concrete's] relevant obligations under the Act and Board Rule 200.1." The Board then provided Spires the option of the wheelchair-accessible home which he proposed be built by Southern Concrete at its expense: (a) on a portion of the Spires' property after the Spires sold such property to Southern Concrete, or (b) on land purchased by Southern Concrete elsewhere. In either event, Spires was to receive a life estate in the house and property. Title was to remain in Southern Concrete. We granted Southern Concrete's application for discretionary review from the superior court's order reversing the award of the Board and adopting that of the ALJ.

The record is silent as to what the status of Spires' spouse will be in the event that she survives him. Presumably, given the facts of this case, nothing would preclude her from purchasing the property from Southern Concrete at the time of his death or taking other action, as she might then deem best.

Southern Concrete appeals, contending that the superior court erred in vacating the Board's decision, such decision as supported by some evidence and impermissibly substituting the trial court's judgment for that of the Board. Discerning error, we reverse.

This Court's standard of review in workers' compensation appeals forecloses the substitution of its judgment for that of the Board in this most difficult case. Specifically, absent legal error,

the factual findings of the State Board of Workers' Compensation must be affirmed by the superior court and by the Court of Appeals when supported by any evidence in the administrative record. However, erroneous applications of law to undisputed facts, as well as decisions based on erroneous theories of law, are subject to de novo review.

(Citation and footnote omitted.) Trent Tube v. Hurston, 261 Ga. App. 525 ( 583 SE2d 198) (2003).

It is undisputed in the record that Spires was severely injured while working as a welder in the construction of a bridge in October 1988. His claim is now and has consistently been regarded as compensable by the parties and catastrophic in nature due to paraplegia. In this regard, Southern Concrete has paid Spires' medical and indemnity benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act (the "Act") since the date of his injury, including Temporary Total Disability benefits of $175 per week.

At the time he was injured and for approximately 16 years prior thereto, Spires lived in a house on 25 acres that he and his wife own in Colquitt County. Subsequent to his injury, Southern Concrete modified the Spires' home to accommodate his physical limitations. The house thereafter became uninhabitable due to several problems, these including a leaky roof, sewage overflow into the home's septic leach field, and sewage contaminating its well water. Consequently, Colquitt County officials condemned the property as no longer habitable.

Given the foregoing, the Spires were forced to vacate the premises in early 2006. Southern Concrete then authorized, and has since paid, $40 a day for meals and approximately $1,000 a month for the Spires to stay at the Hampton Inn in Moultrie while a permanent housing solution could be determined. Although the parties have agreed that Southern Concrete should provide Spires the wheelchair-accessible home which he proposed, they have not agreed as to where the home should be built or the manner in which it should be titled. The instant litigation arises out of those unresolved questions.

Southern Concrete contends that the trial court erred in reversing the Board's award of the above-referenced life estate as a reasonable and necessary rehabilitation benefit, because the award was supported by some evidence and the trial court impermissibly substituted its opinion for the Board's decision as the responsible fact-finding body. . We agree.

OCGA § 34-9-200.1 (a) provides that "[i]n the event of a catastrophic injury, [as here,] the employer shall furnish the employee entitled to benefits under this chapter with reasonable and necessary rehabilitation services." These services contemplate furnishing housing and transportation as reasonable and necessary for "a catastrophically injured employee to return to the least restrictive lifestyle possible." Workers' Compensation Board Rule 200.1 (a) (5) (ii). Notably, while this statute and the corresponding Board rule clearly provide for employer-provided housing to the catastrophically injured employee ( Pringle v. Mayor Aldermen of the City of Savannah, 223 Ga. App. 751, 753 ( 478 SE2d 139) (1996)), neither explicitly requires that such housing be provided to the employee in fee simple as Spires contends.

"[R]ehabilitation services undertake the task of restoring the [injured worker] to the maximum usefulness that he [or she] can attain under his [or her] physical impairment. To accomplish that task, employers must furnish employees with rehabilitation services which, the [B]oard, in its discretion, deems necessary and practical." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Jackson v. Peachtree Housing Div. c., 187 Ga. App. 612, 615 (3) ( 317 SE2d 112) (1988).

Here, the Board determined that Southern Concrete was required to provide Spires with suitable housing and approved the housing plan which Spires proposed as "reasonable and necessary for [Spires] to return to the least restrictive lifestyle possible[]" as required by Board Rule 200.1 (a) (5) (ii). In this regard, Spires' catastrophic rehabilitation supplier testified that granting him title to the new home was not necessary to such end. Such decision is not inconsistent with the nexus required between a job-related injury and authority under law to provide rehabilitation services to the injured employee. See, e.g., Pringle, supra, 223 Ga. App. 754-755 (employer responsible for difference between the cost of rent for injured employee's old apartment and the new, larger apartment required to meet the employee's accessibility needs); Dennis v. Erin Truckways, Ltd., 188 S.W.3d 578, 592 (2006 Tenn.) ("[T]he Workers' Compensation Law does not contemplate employer paying for wheelchair-accessible housing in its entirety. . . ."); Peace River Elec. Corp. v. Choate, 417 So. 831 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982), review denied, 429 So. 2d 7 (Fla. 1983) (employer required to provide "rent-free use" of wheelchair-accessible modular home). We conclude, therefore, that the Board properly determined that Southern Concrete was not obligated to build a wheelchair-accessible home for Spires on property that he owned and that it could meet its obligations under relevant provisions of the Act and Board rules by providing Spires a life estate in a suitable home while retaining title to the property in fee simple. Jackson, supra, 187 Ga. App. at 615.

And consistent with Pringle, it bears emphasis to note that the Board's Rehabilitation Guidelines for Rehabilitation Suppliers ("Rehabilitation Guidelines") promulgated in furtherance of applicable law, as above, require that suitable housing plans for catastrophically injured employees who must move, as here, be developed upon a consideration of multiple factors. Among these are: any equity the employee may have in his or her old house, how much the insurer will be required to contribute to the new home, and who will hold title to the house. These considerations, together with the requirement that all issues of ownership and maintenance be resolved before any new construction begins, clearly reflect authority in the Board to craft the award at issue in this case.

Further, we find that Spires has waived his claim that Southern Concrete presented no evidence of a suitable housing plan. Specifically, the record shows that Spires, through counsel, declined to participate in the development of any housing plan which would take "[he and his wife off] their own land." Smith v. Nichols, 270 Ga. 550, 555 (1) (b) ( 512 SE2d 279) (2000) ("If there has been error, it is one created by [Spires] who cannot now be heard to complain about the result. [Cit.]")

We note that the Housing Guidelines contemplate that "[r]esponsibility for present and future maintenance of Employee's residence must be decided." Such decision has not yet been made, however, by its appellate brief, Southern Concrete points out that it would be responsible for the maintenance of the home in the context of the ownership scheme it proposed.

Even were it otherwise, the record shows that the Board's award was supported by evidence to the extent that Spires participated in the process. Specifically, the Board considered the testimony of Spires' rehabilitation supplier who presented a home design for Spires as part of the independent living plan to which Spires did not agree. Ultimately, the Board adopted the housing plan presented by Spires based upon his expert's testimony. Such home, valued at between $301,990 and $347,670, called for the constuction of a home smaller than the home Spires' rehabilitation supplier proposed.

Spires also claims, without citation of authority, that the prospective house at issue is a medical device within the meaning of OCGA § 34-9-200 (a), foreclosing any financial interest in Southern Concrete which would allow the award of a life estate therein.

OCGA § 34-9-200 (a) provides that "[t]he employer shall furnish the employee entitled to benefits under this chapter such medical, surgical, and hospital care and other treatment, items, and services which are prescribed by a licensed physician. . . ." The record shows, however, that rather than prescribing wheelchair accessible housing in a medical sense, a licensed physician as a member of Spires' rehabilitation team, recommended that he be provided an "accessible house," among other things, as a rehabilitation service which would benefit the medical treatment being provided to Spires.

Even had a wheelchair accessible house been medically prescribed, we do not find that the statute can reasonably be construed as such. To do so would be to require Southern Concrete to support a medical prescription beyond Spires' life. This we decline to do. "All parts of a statute should be harmonized and given sensible and intelligent effect, because it is not presumed that the legislature intended to enact meaningless language." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Colonial Life Accident Ins. Co. v. Heveder, 274 Ga. App. 377, 379 ( 618 SE2d 39) (2005).

We envision, however, that nursing, psychological, or respiratory services as ordered by a physician might reasonably considered a medically prescribed service within the meaning of the statute.

Finally, Spires asserts that the Board lacked authority to award a life estate to Southern Concrete because such authority is reserved to the superior court alone. While "[t]he superior courts shall have . . . exclusive jurisdiction . . . in cases respecting title to land (see Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. VI, Sec. IV, para. 1)), this is not such a case. Under the Act, and subject to supporting evidence, the Board has authority to determine what are reasonable and necessary rehabilitative services. OCGA § 34-9-200.1 (a), supra; Board Rule 200.1 (5) (ii), supra. And in deciding "cases respecting title to land" the role of the superior court is "to determine the parties' dispute as to who [has] title to the land in question." (Footnote omitted.) Goodrum v. Goodrum, 283 Ga. 163 ( 657 SE2d 192) (2008). There currently is no issue as to title to land. The Board's Rehabilitation Guidelines require that all issues of ownership and maintenance be resolved before any construction begins. Thus, no dispute as to the title of land is foreseeable in the future. Given the foregoing, the Board did not exercise authority reserved to the superior court alone. Rather, it simply exercised its broad authority to craft a reasonable remedy.

Under these circumstances, we conclude that the trial court erred in reversing the decision of the Board, such decision as supported by the evidence and binding. Trent Tube, supra, 261 Ga. App. at 525.

Judgment reversed. Phipps, P. J., and Adams, J., concur.

Summaries of


Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division
Mar 22, 2011
A10A1981 (Ga. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2011)
Case details for


Case Details


Court:Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

Date published: Mar 22, 2011


A10A1981 (Ga. Ct. App. Mar. 22, 2011)