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Gomez v. Crookham Co.

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 20, 2019

BALTAZAR GOMEZ, JR., ESTELLA GRIMALDO, ELENA GOMEZ, ELIZABETH FREEMAN, VERONICA FERRO, ZANDRA PEDROZA, ALICIA GOMEZ, YESENIA GOMEZ, and BALTAZAR GOMEZ, III, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
CROOKHAM COMPANY, an Idaho corporation, Defendant-Respondent.

          Appeal from the District Court of the Third Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Canyon County. Thomas J. Ryan, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

          Skaug Law, PC, Nampa and Dinius & Associates, PLLC, Nampa, for Appellants. Kevin E. Dinius argued.

          Elam & Burke, PA, Boise, for Respondent. James A. Ford argued.

          MOELLER, Justice.

         Mrs. Francisca Gomez died as the result of a horrific industrial accident that occurred while she was cleaning a seed sorting machine as part of her employment with the Crookham Company ("Crookham"). Her family (the Gomezes) received worker's compensation benefits and also brought a wrongful death action. The Gomezes now appeal the decision of the district court granting Crookham's motion for summary judgment on all claims relating to Mrs. Gomez's death. The district court held that Mrs. Gomez was working within the scope of her employment at the time of the accident, that all of the Gomezes' claims are barred by the exclusive remedy rule of Idaho worker's compensation law, that the exception to the exclusive remedy rule provided by Idaho Code section 72-209(3) does not apply, and that the Gomezes' product liability claims fail as a matter of law because Crookham is not a "manufacturer." We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This case arises from the death of Mrs. Gomez during a shift at Crookham on January 20, 2016. Crookham is a wholesale seed distributor located in Caldwell, Idaho. Mrs. Gomez was an employee of Crookham for more than thirty years before her death.

         In early 2015, Crookham determined that a new picking table was necessary to sort seeds more efficiently. A Crookham employee fabricated a new table and it was installed in the company's "Scancore" room in late 2015. The new picking table's drive shaft was not fully guarded and did not adhere to the required lockout-tagout procedures, even though OSHA had previously cited Crookham for violating machine guard safety standards and lockout-tagout protocol with its former picking tables.[1]

         On January 20, 2016, Mrs. Gomez was assigned to work in the Scancore room. The employees' duties in that room included cleaning the picking table between sorting batches of different varieties of seeds. To clean the picking table, employees used an air wand to blow seeds upward from beneath the table while the machine is operating. During her shift, Mrs. Gomez was under the picking table attempting to clean it when the table's exposed drive shaft caught her hair and pulled her into the machine. She died as a result of her injuries. OSHA subsequently investigated Crookham and issued "serious" violations to the company because it exposed its employees to the unguarded drive shaft without implementing lockout-tagout procedures.

         In July 2016, the Gomezes filed their Complaint and Demand for Jury Trial. The complaint set forth nine causes of action: (1) negligent design; (2) failure to warn; (3) strict liability-defective product; (4) strict liability-failure to warn; (5) breach of implied warranty of fitness and/or merchantability; (6) breach of express warranty; (7) strict liability-abnormally dangerous activity; (8) negligence/negligence per se; and (9) wrongful death.

         Crookham moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, holding that all of the Gomezes' claims were barred by the exclusive remedy rule of worker's compensation law, that the unprovoked physical aggression exception to the exclusive remedy rule did not apply, that Mrs. Gomez was working within the scope of her employment when the accident occurred, and that the Gomezes' product liability claims failed because Crookham was not a manufacturer of the picking table for product liability purposes. The district court entered a final judgment dismissing all of the Gomezes' claims on October 3, 2017. The Gomezes timely appealed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "This Court's review of a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment is the same standard used by the trial court in originally ruling on the motion." Robison v. Bateman-Hall, Inc., 139 Idaho 207, 209, 76 P.3d 951, 953 (2003). "Summary judgment is appropriate 'if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Taylor v. Taylor, 163 Idaho 910, 916, 422 P.3d 1116, 1122 (2018) (citing I.R.C.P. 56(a)). "A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Marek v. Hecla, Ltd., 161 Idaho 211, 220, 384 P.3d 975, 984 (2016); see also Houpt v. Wells Fargo Bank, Nat. Ass'n, 160 Idaho 181, 186, 370 P.3d 384, 389 (2016) ("If reasonable people could reach different conclusions or inferences from the evidence, summary judgment is inappropriate."). "This Court liberally construes the record in favor of the party opposing the motion for summary judgment and draws any reasonable inferences and conclusions in that party's favor." Robison, 139 Idaho at 209, 76 P.3d at 953.

Regarding the interpretation of statutes, we have said,
[t]he interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which this Court exercises de novo review. The objective of statutory interpretation is to derive legislative intent. Legislative intent begins with the literal language of the statute. To determine the meaning of a statute, the Court applies the plain and ordinary meaning of the terms and, where possible, every word, clause and sentence should be given effect.

Id. at 210, 76 P.3d at 954 (internal citations omitted). "Statutes which relate to the same subject are in pari materia and they should be construed together to effectuate legislative intent." Dewey v. Merrill, 124 Idaho 201, 204, 858 P.2d 740, 743 (1993).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Gomezes contend that because the exclusive remedy rule of Idaho worker's compensation law is found only in Idaho Code section 72-211, it does not bar civil death claims, and that the Industrial Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction over civil death claims. They alternatively argue that the exception to the exclusive remedy rule found in Idaho Code section 72-209(3) permits them to proceed with their claims because Crookham committed an unprovoked physical aggression against Mrs. Gomez. They further argue that Mrs. Gomez's death does not meet the definition of "accident" and that Crookham is a manufacturer of the picking table at issue for product liability purposes.

         A. The exclusive remedy rule bars the Gomezes' civil death claim, unless the exception to the exclusive remedy rule applies.

         The Gomezes argue that Idaho Code section 72-211 alone provides the exclusive remedy rule in Idaho, that the exclusive remedy rule does not bar civil death claims, and that the Industrial Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction over work-related death claims.

         1. Idaho Code sections 72-209 and 72-211 comprise the exclusive remedy rule.

         The Gomezes argue that Idaho Code section 72-211 alone provides the exclusive remedy rule in Idaho. We find that Idaho Code sections 72-209(1) and 72-211 together comprise the exclusive remedy rule of Idaho worker's compensation law.

         Each section of the worker's compensation law is interpreted "in pari materia." Roe v. Albertson's Inc., 141 Idaho 524, 530, 112 P.3d 812, 818 (2005). Therefore, the statutes should be "taken together and construed as one system, and the object is to carry into effect the intention." Grand Canyon Dories v. Idaho State Tax Comm'n, 124 Idaho 1, 4, 855 P.2d 462, 465 (1993) (quoting Meyers v. City of Idaho Falls, 52 Idaho 81, 89-90, 11 P.2d 626, 629 (1932)). "For the purpose of learning the intention, all statutes relating to the same subject are to be compared, and . . . brought into harmony by interpretation." Id.

         Idaho Code section 72-209 was added to the worker's compensation law in 1971 when the laws were recodified under Title 72. Roe, 141 Idaho at 530, 112 P.3d at 818. "[B]oth the police power section and the exclusive remedy section remained part of the Act." Id. (referring to what are now Idaho Code sections 72-201 and 72-211). Regarding Idaho Code section 72-209, we have explained: "Prior to 1971 there was no similar provision, although this provision appears to be the employer's mirror image of I.C. § 72-211." Id.

         Idaho Code section 72-211 provides that "the rights and remedies herein granted to an employee on account of an injury or occupational disease for which he is entitled to compensation under this law shall exclude all other rights and remedies . . . ." Idaho Code section 72-209(1) states that "the liability of the employer under this law shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of the employer to the employee . . . ." In sum, Idaho Code section 72-211 specifies that worker's compensation benefits are an employee's exclusive remedy where the employee is entitled to such benefits, and Idaho Code section 72-209(1) reinforces this remedy by requiring an employer to provide benefits even where another party is also liable to the employee. Idaho Code section 72-209(1) also limits the employer's liability for claims covered under the law to worker's compensation benefits. When read in pari materia, it is clear that these statutes were intended to operate in harmony-"[b]oth provisions state that if an employer is liable under the worker's compensation law then all other liability is excluded." Roe, 141 Idaho at 530, 112 P.3d at 818. Thus, we reaffirm our statement in Venters v. Sorrento Delaware, Inc.: "Counterbalancing the employers' burden of providing 'sure and certain relief' to injured workers, the Act limits the employers' exposure to tort liability through I.C. §§ 72-209(1) and 72-211. These limitations on the scope of employee remedies are together referred to as the 'exclusive remedy rule.'" 141 Idaho 245, 248-49, 108 P.3d 392, 395-96 (2005).

         2. The exclusive remedy rule bars civil death claims and the Industrial Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over such claims unless the exception provided by Idaho Code section 72-209(3) applies.

         The Gomezes argue that the exclusive remedy rule does not bar civil claims for a work-related death and that the Industrial Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction over work-related death claims. Because these two concepts are inextricably connected, the Gomezes' arguments are essentially the same. The result the Gomezes seek is a determination that they have a remedy in civil court for Mrs. Gomez's death, without reliance on an exception to the exclusive remedy rule.

         As previously stated, Idaho Code sections 72-209(1) and 72-211 comprise the exclusive remedy rule. Venters, 141 Idaho at 248-49, 108 P.3d at 395-96. Idaho Code section 72-209(1) unambiguously limits an employer's liability for a work-related injury, occupational disease, or death to worker's compensation benefits. Yet, the Gomezes posit that the exclusive remedy rule does not include work-related death claims because Idaho Code section 72-211 does not expressly include such claims. While the statute does not explicitly include death claims, it is subject to Idaho Code section 72-223, which does expressly include death claims.

         Idaho Code section 72-223 provides that an employer is liable to pay worker's compensation for a work-related injury, occupational disease, or death, even though a third party is also liable to pay damages. The statute also provides that an employee may have a remedy outside of the worker's compensation law against the third party; however, employers are not considered third parties. I.C. § 72-223; Robison, 139 Idaho at 211, 76 P.3d at 955 ("[P]arties deemed employers for the purpose of being liable for worker's compensation benefits under I.C. § 72-102 are the same parties deemed immune from third-party tort liability under I.C. § 72-223."). Consequently, we hold that Idaho Code section 72-211 limits an employee's remedy against an employer for a work-related death to worker's compensation benefits. We have previously explained the apparent rationale for this approach:

And lest it be argued that this rule of law may in some cases deprive persons of remedy for damages which they had prior to the passage of the Workmen's Compensation Law, we note that that law has a dual policy . . . to provide "not only for employees a remedy which is both expeditious and independent of proof of fault, but also for employers a liability which is limited and determinative."

Stample v. Idaho Power Co., 92 Idaho 763, 766, 450 P.2d 610, 613 (1969) (quoting Smither & Co. v. Coles, 242 F.2d 220, 222 (D.C. Cir. 1957)).

         As to the Industrial Commission's jurisdiction, the Gomezes assert that the plain meaning of Idaho Code section 72-201 indicates legislative intent to exclude death claims from the Industrial Commission's exclusive jurisdiction because the word "death" is not expressly included in the statute. The Gomezes assert instead that the Industrial Commission has concurrent jurisdiction over industrial death claims, which allows the Gomezes to both collect death benefits and to also bring a civil action arising from Mrs. Gomez's death.

         The Gomezes' contention fails when Idaho Code section 72-201 is read in conjunction with Idaho Code sections 72-209 and 72-211, as intended: "Idaho Code §§ 72-201, 72-209 and 72-211 should not be read in isolation from one another." Roe, 141 Idaho at 530, 112 P.3d at 818. "Each section is part of the worker's compensation law and we interpret them in pari materia." Id. Idaho Code section 72-201 states, in part: "The common law system governing the remedy of workmen against employers for injuries received and occupational diseases contracted in industrial and public work is inconsistent with modern industrial conditions." The statute also provides that "all civil actions and civil causes of action for such personal injuries and all jurisdiction of the courts of the state over such ...


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