Churchwell v. Firestone Indus. Products Co., a Division of Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.

Decision Date25 February 1982
Docket NumberNo. 2-981A316,2-981A316
PartiesClaude CHURCHWELL, Appellant (Plaintiff below), v. FIRESTONE INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTS COMPANY, A DIVISION OF the FIRESTONE TIRE AND RUBBER COMPANY, Appellee (Defendant below).
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Richard A. Young, Frederick W. Crow, Young & Young, Indianapolis, for appellant.

Richard D. Wagner, James G. McIntire, Krieg DeVault Alexander & Capehart, Indianapolis, for appellee.

SHIELDS, Judge.

Claude Churchwell (Churchwell) initiated this action against Firestone Industrial Products Company (Firestone) when Firestone denied him employee disability pension benefits.

We affirm.

Churchwell was hired by Firestone on March 23, 1966 and worked continuously until he was involved in an automobile accident on February 18, 1976 which left him totally and permanently disabled.

On March 15, 1978 he applied for and was denied long-term disability retirement pension benefits. This suit was thereafter initiated, but summarily concluded when the trial court granted Firestone's motion for summary judgment. The issue raised in the motion and on appeal is the interpretation of certain provisions of Firestone's disability plan. 1

We are well cognizant of our standard of review when a trial court has granted summary judgment. As summarized in Barr v. State, (1980) Ind.App., 400 N.E.2d 1149, 1150, the relevant considerations are as follows:

"A summary judgment is rendered when after reviewing all the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file along with affidavits and testimony, there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Ind.Rules of Procedure, Trial Rule 56(c). On appeal from a grant of summary judgment, the only issues are whether the trial court correctly applied the law and whether there is a genuine issue of material fact. Tekulve v. Turner, (1979) Ind.App., 391 N.E.2d 673. In addition, any doubt as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Hale v. Peabody Coal Company, (1976) Ind.App., 343 N.E.2d 316. Further, even where the facts are not disputed, summary judgment is improper where there may be disagreements as to the inferences to be drawn from these facts. Palmer v. State, (1977) Ind.App., 363 N.E.2d 1245."

Churchwell directs our attention to portions of three documents which he contends are ambiguous and alleges their construction creates a genuine issue of material fact. However, the construction of even an ambiguous contract is a question of law where the ambiguity arises by reason of the language used and not because of extrinsic facts. South Tippecanoe School Building Corp. v. Shambaugh & Son, Inc., (1979) Ind.App., 395 N.E.2d 320, 325, citing Prather v. Ross, (1861) 17 Ind. 495. Churchwell does not contend the documents are ambiguous because of extrinsic facts. Consequently, our review is not whether any genuine issue of material fact exists but whether the trial court, as a matter of law, correctly construed the documents or correctly determined the documents were not ambiguous.

The most crucial document is "Firestone's Pension and Insurance Plan for Hourly-Rated Employees" (Plan) effective June 22, 1973, which provides in relevant part:

"Article IV-Eligibility For Pensions, Section 3., Disability Retirement. An Employee who shall have had not less than 10 years of credited service, and who shall thereafter become, through some unavoidable cause, permanently and totally disabled while accumulating seniority with the Employer, shall be entitled to a pension upon retirement as hereinafter provided. An Employee shall be deemed to be permanently and totally disabled only:

(a) If he has been totally disabled by bodily injury or disease so as to be prevented thereby from being physically able to perform the work of any classification in the local plant, and

(b) If such disability shall have continued for five consecutive months and, in the opinion of a qualified physician designated by the Pension Board, will presumably be permanent and total during the remainder of his life."

The Plan further provides, in part, in Article V, section 3:

"A pension payable pursuant to this Paragraph 3 ... shall commence in the sixth month following the occurrence of the permanent and total disability, provided that an application for pension is made not later than 5 months following the occurrence of such permanent and total disability. In the event application is not made in the five-month period referred to, the pension shall commence in the month following that in which application is made."

Credited Service is defined by the Plan as:

"Article VII-General Provisions, Section 3. The term 'credited service' means seniority on record with the Employer. 'Credited service' with respect to the period beginning July 1, 1973 will be computed on the basis used for computing seniority as provided in the Agreement. Provided, however, that such credited service shall not include service with the Employer after the Employee attains 65 years of age. An Employee's credited service shall be terminated by retirement or severance award, or by termination of seniority as provided in the Agreement."

The second document is entitled "Agreement Between the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and the International Union of The United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic Workers of America, Akron, Ohio, AFL-CIO and Between The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (Akron Plant) and Local Union No. 7 United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic Workers of America" (Agreement). The agreement became effective October 29, 1973 and the relevant portion defining seniority provides:

"Article IV-Seniority and Leave of Absence, Section 1.

(a) Seniority is continuous service at a local plant computed by the time actually spent on the active payroll of that plant plus approved absence as hereinafter defined.

....

(g) An employee who is off work because of a non-factory injury or illness, shall accumulate seniority for a period not to exceed two (2) years from the first date of his absence. During this period he shall be...

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