|Author||Subject: The Oregon Supreme Court's Opinion regarding Smothers|
|Max|| Posted At 12:04:04 05/10/2001
Terry L. Smothers v. Gresham Transfer, Inc., (CC 950502969) (CA A90805) (SC S44512)
On review from the Court of Appeals in an appeal from Multnomah County Circuit Court, Henry Kantor, Judge. The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The judgment of the circuit court is reversed, and the case is remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings. Opinion of the Court by Justice Susan M. Leeson. Justice Paul J. De Muniz did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case.
Today, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that determining whether the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018 (1995) violate the remedy clause of Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution, which provides that "every [person] shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation," involves a case-by-case analysis. The first inquiry is whether a workers' compensation claim alleges an injury to an "absolute" common-law right that the remedy clause protects. If it does, and if the claim is accepted and the worker receives the benefits the workers' compensation statutes provide, then the worker cannot complain that the workers' compensation remedial process is unconstitutional under the remedy clause. Neither can the worker complain if the workers' compensation claim fails because the worker was unable to prove that the work-related incident was a contributing cause of the injury. However, if a workers' compensation claim for an alleged injury to an "absolute" right that is protected by the remedy clause is denied because the worker failed to prove that the work-related incident was the major, rather than a contributing, cause of the injury, then the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018 (1995) are unconstitutional under the remedy clause, because they leave such a worker with no process through which to seek redress for an injury to an "absolute" right that is protected by the remedy clause.
Plaintiff's job as a lube technician for defendant's trucking company required him to work in a pit in a mechanics' shop where trucks were serviced. Plaintiff was exposed to mist and fumes from sulfuric, hydrochloric, and hydrofluoric acids that drifted into the pit from a truck-washing area located outside the shop. He developed severe and progressive symptoms of a respiratory illness, as well as other physical ailments. Plaintiff's illness left him unable to work on several occasions and caused him to leave his job. Plaintiff had not suffered any of his symptoms before his work exposure.
Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim for his lung condition. An administrative law judge (ALJ) of the Workers' Compensation Board (Board) upheld defendant's insurer's denial of plaintiff's claim on the ground that, under ORS 656.802(2)(a), plaintiff had failed to prove that his work exposure was the major contributing cause of his lung condition. After the ALJ had denied plaintiff's workers' compensation claim, plaintiff filed a negligence action in circuit court against his employer. The trial court dismissed plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim under ORCP 21 A(8), reasoning that ORS 656.018 (1995) makes workers' compensation law the "exclusive remedy" for work-related injuries, whether or not a claim is compensable. Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018 (1995), combined with the major contributing cause standard of ORS 656.802(2)(a), left him without a remedy for the injury that he had suffered at work, contrary to the mandate of the remedy clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court first examined the meaning of the remedy clause in Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution. The Court examined the wording of the clause, the historical circumstances that led to its creation, and the case law surrounding it. The Court concluded that, as one of the provisions of the Oregon Bill of Rights, the remedy clause protects rights respecting person, property, or reputation that, when the Oregon Constitution was created in 1857, the common law regarded as "absolute." The remedy clause mandates the availability of a remedy for injuries to those rights. The legislature may abolish a common-law cause of action so long as it provides a substitute remedial process in the event of injury to an absolute right that the remedy clause protects. At a minimum, to be remedy by due course of law, a statutory remedy must be available for the same wrongs or harms for which a common-law cause of action existed when the Oregon Constitution was created in 1857.
In analyzing plaintiff's remedy-clause challenge, the Court first observed that the issue in this case -- whether the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018 (1995), combined with the major contributing cause standard of ORS 656.802(2)(a)
violate the remedy clause -- was a narrow one. In 1913, when the workers' compensation program was adopted as a substitute remedy for a common-law action for negligence for work-related injuries, and for many years thereafter, an injury was a compensable injury if the worker could show that the work-related incident was a contributing cause of the injury. That was the same showing that a plaintiff had to make to prevail at common law. Under current workers' compensation law, by contrast, occupational diseases and some injuries are compensable only if the worker can show that the work-related exposure was the major contributing cause of the injury. Thus, the court explained, there now is a category of workers, like plaintiff, who have suffered injuries at working affecting an "absolute" right respecting person but who receive no compensation benefits if they cannot prove that the work-related incident was the major contributing cause of their injury or disease. ORS 656.018 (1995) purports to make workers' compensation the exclusive remedy for work-related injuries, whether or not the claim is compensable. In circumstances such as plaintiff's, in which a workers' compensation claim for an alleged injury to an "absolute" right is denied for failure to meet the major contributing cause standard of proof, the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018 (1995) are unconstitutional under the remedy clause, because they leave the worker with no remedial process.
This message board has been closed in regard to posting new messages and follow-ups although pages can be viewed. Page loading time had become excessive. Please use the "Message Forum" link from our Main Page here to contribute to our new and improved forum.