Garza v. W. A. Jourdan, Inc.

Decision Date06 December 1977
Docket NumberNo. 2889,2889
PartiesErnesto GARZA, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. W. A. JOURDAN, INC., and the Hartford Insurance Company, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico
OPINION

LOPEZ, Judge.

This suit was brought pursuant to the Workmen's Compensation Act §§ 59-10-1 through 59-10-37, N.M.S.A.1953 (2d Repl.Vol. 9, pt. 1, 1974) for the recovery of the ten percent (10%) penalty due because of the employer's failure to provide guard rails or braces on the scaffolds as safety devices. Plaintiff's claim was dismissed with prejudice, and from this dismissal plaintiff appeals. We reverse.

The plaintiff, Ernesto Garza (hereinafter "the workman"), was employed by the defendant, W. A. Jourdan, Inc. (hereinafter "the employer").

Plaintiff was a cement finisher on building construction projects. He was injured in the course of his employment, while working on a construction project in 1972. The workman was paid regular workmen's compensation benefits until June 9, 1975. After defendant defaulted in payment, plaintiff filed his complaint in this action. After the complaint was filed the defendant reinstituted payment and continued payment until after the court's hearing.

The court below found that:

"At the time of filing of this action, the weekly installments of compensation had been suspended but were later restored and the plaintiff has been paid all installments of disability benefits from the date of the injury through the trial date of January 3, 1977."

The court also found the workman to be totally and permanently disabled.

At the beginning of the trial the defendants moved to dismiss the workman's claim on the ground that it was barred by the one-year statute of limitations contained in § 59-10-13.6, N.M.S.A.1953 (2d Repl.Vol. 9, pt. 1, 1974). Defendants' motion to dismiss was granted, although the court did receive evidence in the nature of an offer of proof. Plaintiff raises two points on this appeal: (1) the statute of limitations was not raised prior to trial as required for an affirmative defense; and (2) the statute of limitations does not apply to the ten percent (10%) penalty provision set out in § 59-10-7, N.M.S.A.1953 (2d Repl.Vol. 9, pt. 1, 1960).

(1) The statute of limitations section is jurisdictional.

The statute of limitations section of the Workmen's Compensation Act is set out in § 59-10-13.6, N.M.S.A.1953 (2d Repl.Vol. 9, pt. 1, 1960) as follows:

"Claim to be filed for workmen's compensation Effect of failure to give required notice or to file claim within time allowed. A. If an employer or his insurer fails or refuses to pay a workman any installment of compensation to which the workman is entitled under the Workmen's Compensation Act (59-10-1 to 59-10-37), . . . it is the duty of the workman insisting on the payment of compensation, to file a claim therefor as provided in the Workmen's Compensation Act, not later than one (1) year after the failure or refusal of the employer or insurer to pay compensation." (Emphasis added).

Plaintiff argues that the limitations statute must be pleaded as an affirmative defense and failure to do so precludes defendant from raising it at a later time under Rule 8(c) of the New Mexico Rules of Civil Procedure (§ 21-1-1(8)(c), N.M.S.A.1953 (Repl.Vol. 4, 1970)); Chavez v. Kitsch, 70 N.M. 439, 374 P.2d 497 (1962). The Workmen's Compensation Act is sui generis and creates exclusive rights, remedies and procedures.

We wish to correct a misstatement of the law we made in Martinez v. Earth Resources Co., 90 N.M. 590, 566 P.2d 838 (Ct.App.1977), wherein we stated that the statute of limitations is a privilege which may be interposed or waived. Under our Workmen's Compensation Act, the limitation of time for filing is a condition precedent to the right to maintain the action, and as this limitation provision is jurisdictional, it many not be waived.

"Where a statute grants a new remedy, and at the same time places a limitation of time within which the person complaining must act, the limitation is a limitation of the right as well as the remedy, and in the absence of qualifying provisions or saving clauses, the party seeking to avail himself of the remedy must bring himself strictly within the limitations."

Swallows v. City of Albuquerque, 61 N.M. 265, 298 P.2d 945 (1956).

Plaintiff's contention that this action is governed by the New Mexico Rules of Civil Procedure is without merit.

"Workmen's compensation statutes are sui generis and create rights, remedies and procedure which are exclusive. They are in derogation of the common law and are not controlled or affected by the code of procedure in suits at law or actions in equity except as provided therein." Swallows, supra.

The position that Rule 8(c) of the New Mexico Rules of Civil Procedure is controlling as to the pleading of affirmative defenses is contrary to New Mexico decisions which hold that the filing of a claim within the prescribed time is a jurisdictional matter. Linton v. Mauer-Neuer Meat Packers, 71 N.M. 305, 378 P.2d 126 (1963); Armijo v. United States Casualty Company, 67 N.M. 470, 357 P.2d 57 (1960); Taylor v. Am. Employers' Ins. Co. of Boston, Mass., 35 N.M. 544, 3 P.2d 76 (1931).

Therefore, in correcting the misstatement in Martinez v. Earth Resources Co., supra, we conclude that the limitations provision set out in the Workmen's Compensation Act is jurisdictional.

(2) The statute of limitations does not apply to plaintiff's claim for the additional 10% Penalty.

The statutory penalty section for failure to provide or failure to use safety devices reads as follows:

"59-10-7. Increase or reduction in compensation based on failure of employer to provide or failure of employee to use safety devices.

"A. In case an injury to, or death of a workman results from his failure to observe statutory regulations appertaining to the safe conduct of his employment, or from his failure to use a safety device provided by his employer, then the compensation otherwise payable under the Workmen's Compensation Act (59-10-1 to 59-10-37) shall be reduced ten per cent (10%).

"B. In case an injury to, or death of a workman results from the failure of an employer to provide safety devices required by law, or in any industry in which safety devices are not prescribed by statute, if an injury to, or death of, a workman results from the negligence of the employer in failing to supply reasonable safety devices in general use for the use or protection of the workman, then the compensation otherwise payable under the Workmen's Compensation Act shall be increased ten per cent (10%)." Section 59-10-7, N.M.S.A.1953 (2d Repl.Vol. 9, pt. 1, 1960).

The question presented in this appeal is one of first impression in New Mexico: "Does the one-year statute of limitations section apply to the above-quoted penalty section?"

The rule of liberal construction in Workmen's Compensation cases is well-established in this jurisdiction. Anaya v. City of Santa Fe, 80 N.M. 54, 451 P.2d 303 (1969); Casados v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 78 N.M. 392, 432 P.2d 103 (1967).

This rule applies to the interpretation of law not facts. Lopez v. Schultz & Lindsay Construction Company, 79 N.M. 485, 444 P.2d 996 (Ct.App. 1968), cert. denied, 79 N.M. 448, 444 P.2d 775 (1968). This case involves a legal dispute over the construction of the applicable statutes and, because no facts are in dispute, the issue concerning the statute of limitations is a matter of law for the Court to decide. Mantz v. Follingstad, 84 N.M. 473, 505 P.2d 68 (Ct.App.1972).

The New Mexico Supreme Court has held that the one-year limitations section has a limited application and is "more restrictive" than similar statutes in other jurisdictions. Garcia v. New Mexico State Highway Department, 61 N.M. 156, 296 P.2d 759 (1956). The Court in Garcia held that medical benefits did not constitute payment of compensation for the purposes of the limitations statute because the word "compensation" refers to "regular semi-monthly benefits."

The ten percent increase or decrease in the safety device section does not fall within the purview of the limitations section either. The ten percent increase or decrease is a penalty statute. As explained in Baca v. Gutierrez, 77 N.M. 428, 423 P.2d 617 (1967):

"The legislature enacted § 59-10-7, supra, as a penalty system, placing the duty on the employer to furnish adequate safety devices in general use for the use or protection of the workman, and in the event of his failure to do so, making him liable to be found guilty of negligence and subject to the penalty provided."

Thus, the safety device statute is not compensatory but punitive, and the portion stating "the compensation otherwise payable . . . shall be increased ten percent (10%)" is the measure of computing the amount of penalty to be levied.

Supporting this interpretation is the express recognition by the legislature in § 59-10-36, supra, that an action for the penalty is independent of the payment or non-payment of regular compensation benefits. Section 59-10-36, supra, provides:

"Premature filings. No claim shall be filed by any workman who is receiving maximum compensation benefits; Provided, however, a workman claiming additional compensation benefits, because of his employer's alleged failure to provide a safety device, may file suit therefor, but in such event only the safety device issue may be determined therein."

Thus, a workman, pursuant to the exception stated in this statute, may file a suit for the penalty despite the fact that he is receiving "maximum compensation benefits" or has been receiving regular semimonthly benefits.

The New Mexico Supreme Court decision in Norvell v....

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