An appeals case drawing attention for its unusual subject matter and potentially large impact on the state’s workers’ comp system asks an important question: Should employers in New Jersey be required to reimburse injured workers for their medical marijuana expenses?
In the Court’s opinion, yes.
The ruling – published January 13, 2020 by the Super Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division – upholds the decision issued in Hager v. M&K Construction. In that case, a workers’ compensation judge ordered an employer to reimburse an employee for prescribed medical marijuana used to treat chronic pain after a work-related accident.
About the Case
As court records show, the injured claimant was a 28-year-old construction worker when he was injured by a truck delivering a load of concrete to a worksite in 2001. He was diagnosed with a herniated disc, a bulging disc, and lower back pain that radiated down both legs.
Continuous pain, nerve damage, and a spinal surgery the claimant underwent in 2003 left him unable to work, and he continued treatment over the years with another spinal surgery (fusion), physical therapy, and pain management. His claim states he became dependent on opioid medications, but still suffered from “chronic debilitating pain.”
The respondent employer denied his compensation benefits for 15 years.
In April 2016, at the behest of his doctor, the claimant enrolled in the state’s Medical Marijuana Program, which, he testified during the initial trial, helped alleviate some of his pain, and allowed him to overcome his Oxycodone dependency.
According to court documents, he treated his pain with the prescribed two ounces of medical marijuana per month – which cost over $600 dollars out-of-pocket.
In 2018, an out-of-court agreement between the claimant and his former employer was reached over medical expenses, out-of-pocket reimbursement, temporary disability benefits, and third-party lien credits. The Compensation Judge later ruled the claimant’s pain and present situation was a result of his work injury, and ordered his former employer to reimburse him for the cost of his medical marijuana and related expenses.
Levinson Axelrod, P.A. did not represent either party in the case.
Medical Marijuana & Workers’ Compensation in New Jersey
In this case, experts agreed there were only two options for treating the claimant’s chronic pain – opioids or marijuana. Factoring in the risks associated with each, the claimant’s previous addiction to opioids, and his reported benefits from medical marijuana, the Judge determined marijuana to be in his best interests.
On appeal, the respondent employer argued:
- It could not comply with the order because it violated the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) makes it illegal to possess, manufacture, or distribute marijuana;
- The CSA preempts the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (MMA); and
- The Judge failed to consider whether medical marijuana is a “reasonable and necessary” form of treatment under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA).
As the Appellate Division opinion notes, reimbursement of a registered MMA patient’s medical marijuana does not require an employer to commit any of the offenses outlined in the Controlled Substances Act, and that the act of reimbursing a patient (who already purchased legal cannabis) does not constitute a crime of “aiding and abetting,” as the respondent employer argued. The opinion also ruled evidence in the case supported medical marijuana as a reasonable and reimburse-able form of treatment for the claimant.
Leading Precedent for Future Workers’ Comp Cases
Ultimately, the Court held that an employer complying with an order to reimburse a person for the legal use of medical marijuana under New Jersey law is permissible, and that the use of medical marijuana can be a reasonable and necessary form of treatment for injured workers.
The ruling is a significant decision which could impact future workers’ compensation cases across the state – and the lives of workers living with pain and other damages caused by work-related injuries. If you or someone you love has questions about how this case may affect your workers’ comp claim, our attorneys are available to help.
Levinson Axelrod, P.A. represents clients across New Jersey in a range of workers’ compensation and personal injury matters. If you have a potential case to discuss, call (732) 440-3089 or contact us online.