Dunn v. Industrial Com'n of Arizona

Decision Date06 January 1994
Docket NumberNo. CV-92-0050-PR,CV-92-0050-PR
Citation866 P.2d 858,177 Ariz. 190
PartiesRose DUNN (Widow), James Dunn (Deceased), Petitioner Employee, v. The INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION OF ARIZONA, Respondent, City of Bisbee, Respondent Employer, State Compensation Fund, Respondent Carrier.
CourtArizona Supreme Court
OPINION

MARTONE, Justice.

We are asked to decide whether the spouse of a deceased worker has standing to claim workers' compensation death benefits if the spouse was married to the worker at the time of the work-related death but not at the time the worker suffered the trauma that caused death. We also must decide if children and stepchildren of a deceased worker who likewise had no relationship with the worker at the time of trauma are also entitled to claim workers' compensation death benefits. Because we find that statutory dependency under A.R.S. § 23-1046 and A.R.S. § 23-1064 is determined at the time of death and not at the time of trauma, we answer both questions in the affirmative.

I. BACKGROUND

The facts are not in dispute. In 1975 James Dunn suffered an on-the-job crush injury to his foot for which he received workers' compensation benefits from the State Compensation Fund. In 1978 James divorced his first wife, and in 1982 he married petitioner Rose Dunn. Rose entered the marriage with two of her own children, and Rose and James had one child together. James died in 1989.

Rose and the children filed a claim for death benefits with the State Compensation Fund, alleging that James' death resulted from complications caused by the trauma to his foot. After the Fund denied the claim, Rose requested a hearing in the Industrial Commission, which found that Rose and the children had no standing to claim benefits. The court of appeals affirmed the Commission. Dunn v. Industrial Comm'n, 171 Ariz. 463, 831 P.2d 839 (App.1991). Relying on this court's decision in Magma Copper Co. v. Naglich, 60 Ariz. 43, 131 P.2d 357 (1942), the court of appeals held that Rose and her children had no standing because they were not statutory dependents at the time James suffered the industrial trauma that entitled him to workers' compensation benefits. We granted Rose's petition for review to examine this troubling issue of statewide importance.

II. ANALYSIS

We first address the relevant statutes. A.R.S. § 23-1046 provides death benefits for widows and dependents of workers who die as a result of an industrial injury. It specifies who is entitled to benefits as well as how much they will be compensated. 1 A.R.S. § 23-1064 creates a conclusive presumption that some spouses and children are totally dependent upon the deceased worker's income. 2 It further states that questions of dependency will be determined at the time of the injury to the employee. A.R.S. § 23-1064(B). The statutes do not expressly state that they are interrelated.

We first interpreted the widow's and dependents' death benefits statutes in 1927 in Ocean Accident & Guarantee v. Industrial Comm'n, 32 Ariz. 54, 255 P. 598 (1927). We held that the children of a worker killed on the job were not entitled to benefits because the worker abandoned his family a number of years earlier. While the workers' compensation statutes then in effect, Laws 1925 ch. 83 §§ 70 and 72, were substantially similar to today's § 23-1046 and § 23-1064, we based our holding on language that has since been deleted from the statutes. Under the old statutes, children were not presumptively dependent upon the deceased worker if the children were not living with the worker at the time of injury or if they still had a surviving parent. Laws 1925 ch. 83 § 72(a)(3). Because the children were neither presumptively nor actually dependent upon the worker when he died, they had no standing to claim benefits.

Ocean also articulated general rules about the workers' compensation statutory scheme. We found an interrelationship between § 70 and § 72, thereby adding the conclusive presumptions to the death benefits scheme. If widows and children did not satisfy the requirements of the presumption, they could "take it not as a matter of law resulting from their relationship as natural children or widows, but from their condition as dependents in whole or in part upon the deceased parent or husband." Id. at 62, 255 P. at 600. Section 72 also fixed the date for determining dependency at the "date of the accident or injury to the employee." Laws 1925 ch. 83 § 72(b).

Relying on Ocean, the court in Magma Copper Co. v. Naglich, 60 Ariz. 43, 131 P.2d 357 (1942), decided a case factually similar to the one we decide today. We denied benefits to the child of a worker who died as a result of an industrial injury incurred two years earlier. The child was conceived and born between the date of the traumatic incident and the date of death.

In Magma we stated that the statutory scheme as interpreted by Ocean requires the compensation carrier to determine dependency at the time of trauma to the employee, not at the time of death. We said "Section 56-960 3, supra, states explicitly as of what date the question of dependency should be determined, and fixes it as the date of the injury, regardless of the time of death, stating that no change of condition subsequent to the injury can affect the dependency." Magma, 60 Ariz. at 55, 131 P.2d at 362. We equated injury with traumatic incident. We did not consider fixing dependency at the time of death because it would be "contrary to our holding in Ocean Acc. & Guar. Co. v. Industrial Comm., supra." Id. at 56, 131 P.2d at 363.

However, we read Ocean differently. Ocean is not a case, as here, where trauma and death are separated by time. Nor do we find support for Magma's assertion that the determination is made at the time of the traumatic incident "regardless of the time of death." Neither the statutory language of then § 56-960 (today's A.R.S. § 23-1064) nor Ocean imply this. The statute only says that the determination is made at the time of injury to the employee. In Ocean we stated, "the provision for death benefits was placed in the Workmen's Compensation Act for the purpose of compensating dependents, or those presumed to be dependent, for the loss sustained by them as a result of the death of an employee." Ocean, 32 Ariz. at 63, 255 P. at 601 (emphasis added). Hence, if Ocean implies anything, it implies that when injury results in death, death is the injury.

The Magma court also failed to address the change in the language of the dependency determination statute between 1927 and 1942. See, supra, note 3. The legislature replaced "accident or injury of the employee" with "injury of the employee." It is our view that, while "accident" logically is synonymous with traumatic incident, the Magma court could not rely on statutory language that no longer existed. The court did not explore the deletion of the word "accident" from the statutory scheme.

The Magma court felt constrained by Ocean, 4 but if Ocean had any control over the facts in Magma, we do not see it. The court could have fixed the determination at the time of trauma to the employee or at the time of death. Because we disagree with Magma's reliance on Ocean, we analyze the statutes anew.

As a general rule of interpretation, clear and unambiguous language is given its plain meaning unless absurd or impossible consequences will result. State v. Wagstaff, 164 Ariz. 485, 490, 794 P.2d 118, 123 (1990). When a statute's language is unclear, our goal is to give it a sensible construction, one that will withstand constitutional challenge. Id. We must also interpret a statute to give effect to legislative intent. Martin v. Martin, 156 Ariz. 452, 457, 752 P.2d 1038, 1043 (1988). The workers' compensation laws should be construed with a view toward advancing the purpose of placing the burden of injury and death upon industry. Peter Kiewit Sons' Co. v. Industrial Comm'n, 88 Ariz. 164, 173, 354 P.2d 28, 34 (1960).

We are convinced, as was the court in Ocean, that § 23-1064 must be construed in conjunction with § 23-1046. Section 23-1064(A) creates a presumption to enhance the efficiency of the death benefits scheme. Those presumed dependent need not go through the process of proving dependency in fact. Section 23-1064 is therefore a companion statute to the controlling statute, § 23-1046.

Even though they must be read in conjunction, it is our view that the two statutes are in conflict as to the date the dependency determination is made. Section 23-1064(B) expressly states that determinations of dependency are fixed at the "date of the injury to the employee," and § 23-1064(A) refers to spouses who have not abandoned the deceased worker "at the time of injury." But § 23-1046(A) provides, in part, for benefits to be made to the "surviving spouse," "widow or widower," and "surviving children." One's widow, surviving spouse, or surviving children, by definition, cannot be determined until the person is dead. Furthermore, § 23-1046(B) addresses the deceased employee who "leaves" dependents who are only partially dependent. One cannot "leave" dependents without first dying. If we construe § 23-1064(B) to fix the determination at the time of trauma and not the time of death, we would eviscerate § 23-1046. Rose is a surviving spouse and her children are surviving children, and they undoubtedly would be entitled to benefits if § 23-1064 did not exist. The two statutes, when read together, create an ambiguity because "injury" in § 23-1064 can mean trauma or death.

We first look to legislative intent. Unfortunately, we have no legislative history to explain what is meant by the...

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