Insurer Must Reimburse New Mexico Mechanic for Marijuana Purchases
On May 19, 2014, The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that Redwood Fire & Casualty must reimburse an injured mechanic for the cost of marijuana he was prescribed for pain due to his on-the-job injury. Gregory Vialpando injured his lower back in 2000 while working for Ben’s Automotive Services. Vialpando’s physician stated that Vialpando’ resulting pain was among the most intense, frequent and long-lasting out of thousands of patients the doctor had treated. In 2013, the workers’ compensation board approved Vialpando to use marijuana as treatment, but Redwood objected to reimbursing him for the cost of the drug due to its illegal status under federal law. While New Mexico passed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act in 2007, legalizing the use of cannabis for treatment of debilitating medical conditions, The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug under federal law with "no acceptable medical use", and makes its sale, possession, and distribution illegal. The Court of Appeals stated in its decision that neither Redwood nor Ben’s cited to any specific federal law that they would violate by reimbursing Vialpando for his herbal purchases.
MY TWO CENTS
It is unclear exactly what positions Ben’s Automotive and Redwood took at trial. However, it would appear that there are valid arguments to support denying reimbursement. By paying for Vialpando’s marijuana, Redwood would arguably be enabling Vialpando to purchase drugs that are illegal under federal law and, therefore, could arguably be considered to be conspiring to violate federal law. Section 846 of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 provides that any person who conspires to commit any other drug offense shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense itself. If reimbursing a person for buying drugs amounts to conspiracy to violate The Controlled Substances Act, Redwood’s concerns would certainly be understandable. Additionally, from Redwood’s perspective, insurance policies are contracts, so contract defenses would apply. Illegality is a defense to a breach of contract claim, so Redwood may have a valid defense in that regard, depending on what state’s law governs the insurance contract.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson, LLC. Fish Nelson is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 332-3414.