Bridgestone Retail Tire Operations v. Industrial Commission of Arizona (7/14/2011)

July 19, 2011

Court of Appeals Division One Holds That An Employee Who Loses Teeth In An Industrial Accident May Recover Permanent Partial Disability Benefits Without Proving Disfiguration.

Carl Truelock was working as a mechanic for Bridgestone when he hit his mouth and nose on the running board of an elevated truck.  Over the course of several years Truelock underwent extensive dental treatment, eventually having all of his teeth replaced by dentures that snap over permanent implants in his mouth. 

An administrative law judge awarded Truelock a scheduled permanent disability benefit for the loss of his teeth pursuant to A.R.S. § 23-1044(B)(22), which provides the benefit “[f]or permanent disfigurement about the head or face, which shall include injury to or loss of teeth.”  Bridgestone brought a special action, arguing that Truelock had not suffered a “permanent disfigurement” and therefore was ineligible for the benefit.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the award.  The Court could not discern the intent of the legislature from the plain language of § 23-1044(B)(22): the language seems to require disfigurement as a condition precedent to an award, but the word “include” also seems to carve out an “injury to or loss of teeth” exception to the disfigurement requirement.  The Court found no further indications of intent in the limited legislative history of the provision, which was enacted over fifty years ago.

The Court then turned to other canons of statutory construction.  Interpreting the provision in a manner that furthers the goals of the relevant body of law favored Truelock, as the purpose of Arizona’s workers’ compensation law is to provide the maximum benefits available and thus should be construed liberally.  The Court also gave deference to the agency’s interpretation, noting that the Industrial Commission of Arizona “has a long-standing and consistent policy” of interpreting the provision in the manner advocated by Truelock.

As an aside, the Court suggested that advances in dental technology over the past fifty years perhaps make the provision overly generous to injured employees (including Truelock, whose dental implants were so much better than his pre-injury teeth that one oral surgeon called the implants a “gift”).  Bound by the canons of interpretation, however, the Court left it to the legislative branch to consider “the continuing wisdom of this longstanding statute.”

Judge Downie authored the opinion; Judges Johnsen and Thompson concurred.