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Hendrix v. Alcoa, Inc.

Supreme Court of Arkansas

December 15, 2016




          Simmons Hanly Conroy, by: William Kohlburn; Odom Law Firm, P.A., by: Russell Winburn; and Cullen & Co., PLLC, by: Tim Cullen, for appellant.

          Hawkins Parnell Thackston & Young LLP, by: H. Barret Marshall, Jr.; and Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP, by: Rodney P. Moore and Michael A. Thompson, for appellee Alcoa Inc.

          Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP, by: Robert S. Shafer and Guy Alton Wade, for amici curiae Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas, Inc.

          Worley, Wood & Parrish, P.A., by: Jarrod S. Parrish, for amicus curiae Arkansas Self Insurers Association.

          David L. Pake, for amicus curiae Death & Permanent Total Disability Trust Fund.

          COURTNEY HUDSON GOODSON, Associate Justice.

         Appellant Brenda Hendrix, individually, and as the Special Administratrix of the Estate of Guy D. Hendrix, Deceased (the "estate"), appeals the amended judgment entered by the Saline County Circuit Court granting the motion to dismiss filed by appellee Alcoa, Inc.[1] For reversal, the estate contends that the exclusive-remedy provision of the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Act (the "Act") does not bar a common-law tort action against the decedent's employer because the Act provides no remedy for the disease that caused the decedent's death. We accepted certification of this case from the Arkansas Court of Appeals in accordance with Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 1-2(d), on the basis that the appeal presents an issue of first impression concerning a matter of substantial public interest and a significant question of law concerning the interpretation of an act of the General Assembly. See Ark. Sup. Ct. R. 1-2(b)(1), (4) & (6). In keeping with legislative intent, we must affirm the circuit court's decision.

         The facts of this case are not disputed. The decedent, Guy D. Hendrix, worked for Alcoa from 1966 until his retirement in the fall of 1995. In June 2012, he received a diagnosis of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. In September 2012, Hendrix filed a claim against Alcoa for workers' compensation benefits, alleging that he was exposed to asbestos during the course of his employment. On November 7, 2012, an administrative law judge found that the claim was barred under the provisions of Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-702(a)(2) (Repl. 2012). This subsection of the statute provides in relevant part that

(A)A claim for compensation for disability on account of injury which is either an occupational disease or occupational infection shall be barred unless filed with the commission within two (2) years from the date of the last injurious exposure to the hazards of the disease or infection.
(B)However, a claim for disability on account of silicosis or asbestosis must be filed with the commission within one (1) year after the time of disablement, and the disablement must occur within three (3) years from the date of the last injurious exposure to the hazard of silicosis or asbestosis.

         The law judge concluded that Hendrix's claim was time-barred because it was not filed within three years of the last date of the injurious exposure. Hendrix did not appeal the law judge's decision to the full commission.

         Hendrix died in November 2013. In April 2014, the estate initiated this wrongful-death and survival action against Alcoa. Alcoa subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the estate's amended complaint against it, asserting that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction because the claims fell within the exclusive-remedy provision of the Act. After a hearing, the circuit court entered an order dismissing the claims against Alcoa with prejudice. This appeal followed.[2]

         For reversal, the estate contends that the circuit court erred in dismissing its complaint against Alcoa. It asserts that a circuit court has jurisdiction to entertain a civil action against an employer when the employee has no remedy under the Act. More specifically, the estate maintains that Hendrix's opportunity to obtain workers' compensation benefits ceased before his claim accrued and that the Act provided no remedy for Hendrix's occupational disease because the disease manifested after the limitations period had expired.

         This case requires us to construe the exclusive-remedy provision of the Act in conjunction with section 11-9-702(a)(2)(B). The basic rule of statutory construction is to give effect to the intent of the General Assembly. Gerber Prods. Co. v. Hewitt, 2016 Ark. 222, 492 S.W.3d 856. Statutes relating to the same subject must be construed together and in harmony, if possible. Hammerhead Contracting & Dev., LLC v. Ladd, 2016 Ark. 162, 489 S.W.3d 654. It is axiomatic that this court strives to reconcile statutory provisions to make them consistent, harmonious, and sensible. Brock v. Townsell, 2009 Ark. 224, 309 S.W.3d 179. When interpreting the workers' compensation statutes, we must strictly construe them. Ark. Code Ann. § 11-9-704(c)(3); Miller v. Enders, 2013 Ark. 23, 425 S.W.3d 723. "The doctrine of strict construction requires this court to use the plain meaning of the language employed." Stewart v. Ark. Glass Container, 2010 Ark. 198, at 6, 366 S.W.3d 358, 361-62. Strict construction means narrow construction and requires that nothing be taken as intended that is not clearly expressed. Lambert v. LQ Mgmt., LLC, 2013 Ark. 114, 426 S.W.3d 437.

         The question of the correct application and interpretation of an Arkansas statute is a question of law, which this court decides de novo. Worsham v. Bassett, 2016 Ark. 146, 489 S.W.3d 162. We are not bound by the circuit court's decision; however, in the absence of a showing that the circuit court erred, its interpretation will be accepted as correct. McLemore v. Weiss, 2013 Ark. 161, 427 S.W.3d 56.

         The exclusive-remedy provision of the Act is found at Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-105(a), which states in part that

(a) The rights and remedies granted to an employee subject to the provisions of this chapter, on account of injury or death, shall be exclusive of all other rights and remedies of the employee, his legal representative, dependents, next of kin, or anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages from the employer[.]

         We have said that this provision clearly indicates that any claim for injury or death against an employer may only be brought under the Act, thus eliminating an employer's tort liability. Elam v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 344 Ark. 555, 42 S.W.3d 443 (2001). The reason for such exclusivity is found in the general purpose behind our workers' compensation laws, which was to change the common law by shifting the burden of all work-related injuries from individual employers and employees to the consuming public, with the concept of fault being virtually immaterial. Craven v. Fulton Sanitation Serv., Inc., 361 Ark. 390, 206 S.W.3d 842 (2005). With the passage of such statutes, employers gave up the common-law defenses of contributory negligence, fellow servant, and assumption of the risk; likewise, employees gave up the chance to recover unlimited damages in tort actions in return for certain recovery in all work-related cases. Brown v. Finney, 326 Ark. 691, 932 S.W.2d 769 (1996).

         Because the exclusive-benefits provision of our compensation law favors both the employer and the employee, we have taken a narrow view of any attempt to seek damages beyond that favored, exclusive remedy. Honeysuckle v. Curtis H. Stout, Inc., 2010 Ark. 328, 368 S.W.3d 64. However, we have made exceptions where it is plain that the Act does not provide a remedy for the claim. For instance, in Travelers Insurance Co. v. Smith, 329 Ark. 336, 947 S.W.2d 382 (1997), the widow of an employee killed in a work-related accident sued the employer's compensation carrier in the circuit court for the emotional distress caused by its mishandling of her late husband's remains. The carrier sought a writ of prohibition in this court contending that the lawsuit was barred by the exclusive-remedy doctrine. We denied the writ and allowed the case to go forward in the circuit court, framing the issue as "whether the lack of a remedy answers the jurisdictional question." Travelers, 329 Ark. at 343, 947 S.W.2d at 385. We held that the cause of action was premised on a nonphysical injury, which is not covered under the Act, and because the injury was beyond the scope of coverage under the Act, it was not barred by the exclusive-remedy provision.

         Next, in Davis v. Dillmeier Enterprises, Inc., 330 Ark. 545, 956 S.W.2d 155 (1997), the employee suffered a compensable injury for which benefits were paid. Once she received a release from treatment, she reported for work but was promptly fired. The employee then filed suit in the circuit court asserting a cause of action for discrimination based on physical disability under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act. Citing Travelers, supra, we observed that "in determining whether an action involving a work-related injury may be filed in circuit court, an important consideration is whether the Workers' Compensation Act provides a remedy to the plaintiff." Davis, 330 Ark. at 554, 956 S.W.2d at 159. We concluded that the Act did not provide a remedy for an employee who is terminated from his or her job on the basis of a disability. Consequently, we held that the exclusive-remedy provision did not preclude the employee from bringing a civil-rights action in the circuit court grounded on the employer's alleged discrimination in terminating the employee based on her permanent restrictions and impairment.

         We reached a similar result in Automated Conveyor Systems, Inc. v. Hill, 362 Ark. 215, 208 S.W.3d 136 (2005). There, the employee suffered a gradual-onset injury caused by heavy lifting. He presented a claim for workers' compensation that was denied because the Act covered only gradual-onset injuries caused by rapid and repetitive motion. The employee then sued his employer in the circuit court. When the circuit court denied the employer's motion to dismiss based on the exclusive-remedy provision, the employer filed a petition for writ of prohibition in this court. We held that the exclusive-remedy provision did not bar the employee's cause of action because the injury did not meet the definition of a compensable injury and thus the employee did not have a remedy under the Act.

         We agree with the estate that the common thread running through these decisions is that an employee may bring suit against his or her employer when there is no remedy available under the Act. Thus, the question here is whether Hendrix had a remedy pursuant to the Act.

         In his treatise, Professor Larson draws a distinction "between an injury which does not come within the fundamental coverage provisions of the act, and an injury which is in itself covered but for which, under the facts of the particular case, no compensation is payable." 9 Lex K. Larson, Larson's Workers' Compensation pt. ...

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