Workers who lose teeth in an on-the-job injury are entitled to collect benefits for 18 months, even if they are not disfigured, the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled.

The judges rejected arguments by Bridgestone Retail Tire Operations and its insurance carrier that its responsibilities ended with paying the medical bills of Carl Truelock. They said their reading of the law, while subject to interpretation, shows it was the intent of legislators to make the payments available.

Judge Margaret Downie conceded that, given the advancement in dental surgery, the law may no longer make sense. But she said it is up to the Legislature to decide that.

Court records show that Truelock, a mechanic for Bridgestone, was injured in 2004 when he hit his nose and mouth on the running board of a truck that was on a lift for an oil change.

Truelock filed a workers’ compensation claim which was accepted. After he got extensive dental work, his claim was closed.

At his request, the insurer agreed in 2008 to substantial additional dental treatment, including the replacement of all of his teeth with permanent implants. He also received dentures that snap over the implants.

In 2009, the insurance carrier again closed the claim, saying he had no permanent impairment. Truelock challenged the move.

A hearing officer at first rejected his appeal. But that was subsequently changed, with the hearing officer saying he was entitled to 55 percent of his average monthly wage for 18 months. That led to the company seeking court review.

At the heart of the dispute is a section of law which spells out when injured workers are entitled to partial disability payments. That schedule provides for benefits for 18 months “for permanent disfigurement about the head or face, which shall include any injury to or loss of teeth.”

Attorneys for the company argued the law does not provide for compensation when there is no disfigurement. Truelock’s lawyer countered that the loss of teeth, by itself, triggers the benefits.

“Both proffered interpretations (of the law) are plausible,” Downie conceded. What that means, the judge said, is the court then is required to interpret the statute in a way that “furthers the goals” of the law.

Here, Downie said, the goal of the workers’ compensation law is to ensure that injured employees receive maximum available benefits. And she said that the state Supreme Court has ruled that the act “is to be construed liberally.”

The judge also noted that the Industrial Commission, which administers the workers’ compensation law in Arizona, has had a longstanding and consistent policy of interpreting the law the way Truelock suggests.

All that, Downie said, leads her and her appellate court colleagues to believe that Truelock is entitled to the payments.

“If we were writing on a clean slate, we might conclude that (the company’s) statutory interpretation is more reasonable, especially given the significant advances in dental technology that have occurred since the Legislature added the language in question,” she wrote. “Ultimately, however, the continuing wisdom of this longstanding statute is a policy matter for the legislative branch to consider.”

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