Hanson v. Transportation General, Inc.

Decision Date28 July 1998
Docket NumberNo. 15766,15766
Citation245 Conn. 613,716 A.2d 857
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesJanet HANSON v. TRANSPORTATION GENERAL, INC., et al.

Lawrence C. Scrignari, for appellant (plaintiff).

Jason M. Dodge, Glastonbury, for appellees (defendants).

Jean E. Tomasco, Richard F. Vitarelli, Hartford, Craig A. Berrington, Bruce C. Wood, Washington, DC, and Steven A. Bennett, New York City, filed a brief for the American Insurance Association as amicus curiae.

Jeffrey R. Babbin, Joan Allen Rowe and John G. Zandy, New Haven, filed a brief for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association as amicus curiae.

Before BORDEN, BERDON, NORCOTT, KATZ and PETERS, JJ.

PETERS, Associate Justice.

The Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31-275 et seq., provides benefits only for those workers who have the status of "employees" at the time of their injury. The principal issue in this certified appeal is whether an owner-operator of a taxicab qualifies as an employee of the taxicab company with which he contracted to provide taxicab service.

The plaintiff, Janet Hanson, the surviving spouse of Allen Hanson (decedent), filed a workers' compensation claim to recover survivor benefits for the death of the decedent while he was driving a taxicab in accordance with his written agreement with the defendants, Transportation General, Inc. doing business as Metro Taxi Service (Metro), and Hartford Insurance Company. 1 The compensation commissioner for the third district (commissioner) dismissed Hanson's claim as a result of his finding that, on the date of the decedent's death, he had been an independent contractor and not an employee of Metro. Hanson appealed to the compensation review board (board), which affirmed the decision of the commissioner. That decision was then affirmed by the Appellate Court. Hanson v. Transportation General, Inc., 45 Conn.App. 441, 447, 696 A.2d 1026 (1997).

We granted Hanson's petition for certification to consider the merits of her claim for compensation, either under a proposed "relative nature of the work" test or under the existing "right to control" test. Hanson v. Transportation General, Inc., 243 Conn. 914, 914-15, 701 A.2d 329 (1997). We also agreed to determine Hanson's ancillary evidentiary claim. 2 We affirm the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The opinion of the Appellate Court outlines the basic facts. "[Metro] ... operated a fleet of taxicabs through the use of both owner-operator and lease agreements. Drivers could either lease or purchase cabs from [Metro]. The decedent, under an owner-operator agreement, drove a Metro [cab] from 1987 until he was murdered while operating a Metro [taxicab] on April 16, 1990. Under the terms of [Metro's] standard owner-operator agreement, [Metro] held legal title to the [taxicab] and the owner-operator maintained a beneficial ownership. 3 Upon the termination of the relationship, which could be done by either party after forty-eight hours notice, legal title [to the taxicab] would be transferred back to the owner-operator. In return for the weekly payment by the owner-operator of 'stand dues' 4 in the approximate amount of $425, plus an additional $100 per week if a second driver was used, [Metro], under a certificate issued to it by the department of transportation, allowed the owner-operator the right to operate a taxicab. [Metro] required the owner-operator to be properly licensed, to use a taxicab meter and radio approved by the department of transportation and to obey its regulations and to adhere to all federal, state and local laws. The owner-operators also were required to maintain insurance in the minimum amount required by law at their own expense and to pay for the use and operation of the [taxicab] including repairs, maintenance, fines, tickets, towing and all taxes or other assessments imposed by governmental agencies. Under the agreement, the owner-operator could set the hours of operation, hire a driver for the taxicab, use the vehicle for personal use and keep all fares derived from the operation of the [taxicab]. [Metro] did not pay the owner-operator, provide benefits request income records or collect payroll or social security taxes." Hanson v. Transportation General, Inc., supra, 45 Conn.App. at 442-43, 696 A.2d 1026.

I.

The first issue presented by Hanson's appeal is whether, in deciding whether a worker is an employee under the act, we should adopt the "relative nature of the work" test as an alternative to the "right to control" test. The Appellate Court declined to address this issue on its merits because it felt bound by this court's decision in Ross v. Post Publishing Co., 129 Conn. 564, 29 A.2d 768 (1943). In that case, we held that "[t]here is no dispute about the ultimate test. It is the right of general control of the means and methods used by the person whose status is involved ." Id., at 567, 29 A.2d 768. Although the issue of the propriety of recourse to the "relative nature of the work" test raises serious questions that warrant plenary exploration by this court; Doe v. Stamford, 241 Conn. 692, 696-97, 699 A.2d 52 (1997); we are not persuaded that we should engraft this test onto our longstanding workers' compensation law.

A

The issue that Hanson has raised must be decided in the context of two jurisprudential principles that limit our authority to afford her the relief that she seeks. First, because this is a workers' compensation case, it is governed by the special rules of construction that we have long held applicable in such cases. 5 Second, because this is a case in which Hanson asks us to overrule a line of judicial precedents that the legislature has left intact for eighty years, it must be reconciled with the principles of stare decisis.

Connecticut first adopted a statutory scheme of workers' compensation in 1913. Dodd v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Co., 242 Conn. 375, 381, 698 A.2d 859 (1997). Although some statutes have common-law roots that may enlighten their construction, the act is not such a statute. "[T]he workers' compensation system in Connecticut is derived exclusively from statute.... A commissioner may exercise jurisdiction to hear a claim only under the precise circumstances and in the manner particularly prescribed by the enabling legislation." (Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Discuillo v. Stone & Webster, 242 Conn. 570, 576, 698 A.2d 873 (1997); see also Kinney v. State, 213 Conn. 54, 60, 566 A.2d 670 (1989); Gagnon v. United Aircraft Corp., 159 Conn. 302, 305, 268 A.2d 660 (1970). "Because of the statutory nature of our workers' compensation system, policy determinations as to what injuries are compensable and what jurisdictional limitations apply thereto are for the legislature, not the judiciary or the board, to make." Discuillo v. Stone & Webster, supra, at 577, 698 A.2d 873. Whatever the policy implications of this case may be, "the issue presented is, at bottom, a matter of statutory construction." Doe v. Stamford, supra, 241 Conn. at 697, 699 A.2d 52.

As a matter of statutory construction, to overrule our long-standing invocation of the "right to control" test, we would have to reconcile such a ruling with the presumption of legislative acquiescence in judicial interpretations that the legislature has not overturned. We have long acted on the hypothesis that the legislature is aware of the interpretation that the courts have placed upon one of its legislative enactments. Once an appropriate interval to permit legislative reconsideration has passed without corrective legislative action, the inference of legislative acquiescence limits judicial authority to reconsider the merits of its earlier decision. Hall v. Gilbert & Bennett Mfg. Co., 241 Conn. 282, 297-98, 695 A.2d 1051 (1997); see Jolly, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Appeals, 237 Conn. 184, 196, 676 A.2d 831 (1996); White v. Burns, 213 Conn. 307, 333-34, 567 A.2d 1195 (1990); Herald Publishing Co. v. Bill, 142 Conn. 53, 63, 111 A.2d 4 (1955). In this context, only "the most cogent reasons and inescapable logic"; Jolly, Inc. v. Zoning Board of Appeals, supra, at 196, 676 A.2d 831; can justify judicial abandonment of judicial precedents dating back more than eighty years. See Thompson v. Twiss, 90 Conn. 444, 447, 97 A. 328 (1916).

We can perceive no such cogent reasons or inescapable logic to justify altering our long-standing judicial interpretation of one of the fundamental premises of our workers' compensation statute. This is particularly true for this statute, which has been the subject of extensive legislative amendment over its entire life, without any legislative indication of disagreement with the right to control test. Furthermore, it is fair to assume that employers and insurers have relied justifiably on that interpretation in ordering their business affairs. For us to abandon that interpretation would upset their legitimate expectations.

B

Recognizing that these principles create obstacles to judicial reconsideration of our long-standing "right to control" test, Hanson attempts a bypass, arguing that the "relative nature of the work" test can coexist with the "right to control" test. We disagree.

The "relative nature of the work" test determines the relationship between a worker and a putative employer by asking whether the worker's performance is an integral part of the regular business of the putative employer. 3 A. Larson & L. Larson, Workmen's Compensation (1997) § 45.00, p. 8-193. The "right to control" test determines the same relationship by asking whether the putative employer has "the right to control the means and methods" used by the worker in the performance of his or her job. Hunte v. Blumenthal, 238 Conn. 146, 154, 680 A.2d 1231 (1996); Silverberg v. Great Southwest Fire Ins. Co., 214 Conn. 632, 639, 573 A.2d 724 (1990); Ross v. Post Publishing Co., supra, 129 Conn. at 567, 29 A.2d 768.

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