FROM THE PULASKI COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, FIFTH DI VI SI O N
[NO. 60CV-13-4756] HONORABLE WENDELL GRIFFEN, JUDGE REVERSED
Law Firm, P.A., by: William C. Frye, for appellant.
Trammell Law Firm, by: William D. Shelton¸Jr., and
Robert D. Trammell, for appellee.
LARRYD. VAUGHT, JUDGE.
Stan d/b/a Renaissance Plaster & Design (Stan) appeals
the order entered by the Pulaski County Circuit Court (1)
finding that it had subject-matter jurisdiction over a
complaint filed by Jose Juan Vences and (2) denying
Stan's motion to set aside the default judgment that the
court had entered against him in favor of Vences. We reverse
and dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
December 12, 2013, Vences filed a complaint for damages in
the circuit court alleging that on November 21, 2013, he was
Stan's employee and was working in the course and scope
of his employment when he sustained a significant injury to
his finger. Vences further alleged that his injury was
proximately caused by Stan's negligence. Vences also
alleged that Stan violated Arkansas law "in failing to
provide workers' compensation benefits for his employees
. . . therefore, [he lost] his immunity from suit."
Vences requested damages for past and future medical
expenses, past and future lost wages, conscious pain and
suffering, and for the permanency of his injury. Stan was
served with the complaint on January 23, 2013. No answer was
15, 2014, Vences moved for default judgment, and an order of
default was entered on June 19, 2014. A hearing on damages
was held on December 10, 2014. Stan did not attend the
hearing. Vences, who was a construction worker, testified
about his injury, the medical treatment he received, the
medical treatment he needed, his pain and suffering, his
inability to work in heavy construction, and the effect the
injury has had on his work and marriage.
conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court orally found
that an employment relationship existed between Vences and
Stan, that Vences was working within the course and scope of
his employment at the time of his injury, and that the injury
was proximately caused by Stan's negligence. The circuit
court also found that Stan failed to provide
workers'-compensation benefits for his employees and
therefore lost his exclusive-remedy immunity from suit in
tort. The court awarded Vences $252, 209 plus a
"penalty" of $25, 221 for a total award of $277,
430. On January 20, 2014, the circuit court entered a
judgment finding that Stan was "ineligible for and has
waived immunity provided under the [Workers'
Compensation] Act" and awarding damages in the amount of
August 27, 2015, Stan moved to set aside the default judgment
for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. He argued that he
was covered under a policy of workers'-compensation
insurance on November 21, 2013,  the date of Vences's
accident, and that the Arkansas Workers' Compensation
Commission ("Commission") website also verified
that he had workers'-compensation coverage on November
21, 2013. Accordingly, Stan argued that pursuant to
Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-105(a) (Repl. 2012), the
Commission had exclusive, original jurisdiction of the case
and that the exception to the exclusive-remedy rule found in
section 11-9-105(b) was not triggered.
hearing on Stan's motion to set aside the default
judgment, the circuit court took the matter under advisement.
On August 2, 2017, the circuit court entered an order
concluding that it had subject-matter jurisdiction over the
case and denying Stan's motion to set aside the default
judgment. In reaching these conclusions, the court found that
subject-matter jurisdiction is determined on the pleadings,
and Vences's complaint "stated that [Stan]
affirmatively denied having workers' compensation
coverage." The court therefore found that the section
11-9-105(b)(1) exception to the exclusive-remedy provision
was triggered and gave the circuit court jurisdiction to hear
the case. The court also found that Stan failed to present
the mandatory affirmative defense of exclusive remedy;
therefore, he waived the defense. Stan appeals this order,
raising three points: (1) the circuit court lacked
subject-matter jurisdiction; (2) the default judgment is void
for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction; and (3) Stan did not
and could not waive his challenge to the lack of
subject-matter jurisdiction by failing to answer the
judgments are governed by Rule 55 of the Arkansas Rules of
Civil Procedure. Rule 55(c) provides that a court may set
aside a default judgment if the judgment is void. Ark. R.
Civ. P. 55(c) (2018). Taken together, Stan's first two
arguments on appeal are that the default judgment was void
for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. In cases where the
appellant claims that the judgment is void under Rule
55(c)(2), the appellate courts will review a circuit
court's denial of a motion to set aside default judgment
using a de novo standard. Morgan v. Big Creek Farms of
Hickory Flat, Inc., 2016 Ark.App. 121, at 3, 488 S.W.3d
535, 538 (citing Nucor Corp. v. Kilman, 358 Ark.
107, 118, 186 S.W.3d 720, 727 (2004)).
first argument is that the circuit court lacks subject-matter
jurisdiction of Vences's action because he is immune from
suit in tort under the exclusive-remedy provision of the
Workers' Compensation Act ("Act"), which he
claims gives the Commission exclusive jurisdiction. He argues
that when the Act applies, the circuit court is wholly
without jurisdiction. He further argues that the Commission
has exclusive, original jurisdiction to determine the facts
that establish subject-matter jurisdiction.
an employer who carries workers'-compensation insurance
is immune from liability for damages in a tort action brought
by an injured employee. Entergy Ark., Inc. v. Pope Cty.
Circuit Court, 2014 Ark. 506, at 6, 452 S.W.3d 81, 84.
This rule, known as the exclusivity doctrine, provides that
"[t]he 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 . . . from the employer . . . on
account of the injury or death . . . ." Entergy
Ark., 2014 Ark. 506, at 6, 452 S.W.3d at 84 (citing Ark.
Code Ann. § 11-9-105(a)).
Reynolds Metal Company v. Circuit Court of Clark
County, our supreme court explained the ...