Nevada, like a number of other states, provides workers’ compensation benefits for inmates who sustain injuries “while engaged in work in a prison industry or work program,” whether the program is operated by the Department of Corrections or a private employer [Nev. Rev. Stat. § 616B.028(1)]. The Supreme Court of Nevada recently held that the “prison industry or work program” concept does not, however, apply to an inmate living at a half-way house who sustained serious injuries while working at a privately-owned, full-service car wash; the car wash’s workers’ compensation insurer had full responsibility for the owed benefits [Nevada Dep’t of Corr. v. York Claims Servs., Inc., 2015 Nev. LEXIS 32 (May 7, 2015)].
Piper, who had been convicted of burglary, was transferred to a half-way house to serve out the remainder of his sentence. While living there, Piper worked at a full-service car wash, wiping down cars after they had been washed. When the owner of the car wash discovered that Piper had experience in landscaping, he asked Piper to trim some trees on the property. Piper was severely injured when he fell from a tree and struck his head. He underwent several rounds of cranial surgery. The car wash’s workers’ compensation insurer denied responsibility for the claim, contending liability rested with the State of Nevada.
The state appeals officer found the car wash’s insurer liable, based on a finding that Piper was clearly an employee of the car wash. On review, the district court focused entirely on the carrier’s § 616B.028 argument and what it called a “plain-language” reading of the statute. According to the district court, “work program” included the state’s work release program. Thus, the car wash’s insurer was not responsible for the workers’ compensation benefits; the benefits were the responsibility of the Department of Corrections.
On further appeal, the state high court disagreed. Concluding that “work program” in § 616B.028(1) was “subject to more than one reasonable interpretation,” and was thus ambiguous, that the statute referred to prison industry programs codified in Nev. Rev. Stat. Chapter 209, whether they took place inside the prison walls, e.g., producing license plates, or outside the prison walls, e.g., outdoor day-labor projects, but not the sort of work performed through work release programs.