Horner v. Boston Edison Co.

Decision Date30 June 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-P-0102,97-P-0102
Citation45 Mass.App.Ct. 139,695 N.E.2d 1093
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Philip E. Murray, Jr., Boston (Mark A. Newcity, with him), for defendant.

J. Michael Conley, Braintree, for plaintiff.



On April 22, 1989, while making a security check at the defendant's (Edison's) Pilgrim Nuclear Plant, the plaintiff, Mark J. Horner, slipped and fell on a stairway with a missing tread. That mishap caused him serious injuries, which disabled him from working. At the time of the accident, Horner was an employee of Wackenhut Corporation (Wackenhut), which had a contract with Edison to provide security services at the plant. After filing a claim under G.L. c. 152 for workers' compensation benefits, he began receiving weekly payments from Wackenhut's workers' compensation insurer. The workers' compensation case was eventually the subject of a lump sum settlement agreement approved by the Department of Industrial Accidents on May 1, 1991. The agreement submitted to the board permits Horner to bring a third-party action pursuant to G.L. c. 152, § 15.

In 1991, Horner sued Edison for negligence in causing the injuries suffered in the 1989 accident. At issue here is the validity of the release signed by Horner in July of 1988, as part of his original employment application with Wackenhut. The release, if valid, bars any suit by him against Edison for his injuries. Edison's motion for summary judgment has been denied three times by different Superior Court judges. The last denial of Edison's renewed motion for summary judgment was made after our unpublished decision issued in McKenzie v. Boston Edison Co., 40 Mass.App.Ct. 1112, 662 N.E.2d 1065 (1996), in which a panel of this court held that the same release at issue here was valid, and we affirmed a summary judgment for Edison on that basis. 1 The motion judge chose not to follow the reasoning in the McKenzie case. As a result, Edison brought an interlocutory appeal to a single justice of this court pursuant to G.L. c. 231, § 118, first par. The single justice denied relief but gave Edison permission for an appeal to a full panel. See Swift v. American Mut. Ins. Co., 399 Mass. 373, 375 n. 5, 504 N.E.2d 621 (1987).

There is a threshold issue. Edison argues that Horner's claims in this case are controlled by our unpublished decision in the McKenzie case. For the very reason that the decision was unpublished, Edison's argument is without merit. We have never suggested that summary decisions of this court issued pursuant to rule 1:28, as amended, 10 Mass.App.Ct. 942 (1980), may be relied upon or cited as authority in other cases. In fact, we reached the opposite conclusion in at least two other cases. See Lyons v. Labor Relations Commn., 19 Mass.App.Ct. 562, 566 n. 7, 476 N.E.2d 243 (1985), S. C., 397 Mass. 498, 492 N.E.2d 343 (1986); Wolbach v. Beckett, 20 Mass.App.Ct. 302, 306 n. 5, 480 N.E.2d 49 (1985). While we left open the possibility that a summary decision could be cited as precedent in a "related" case, we have had no occasion to do so. See Purvis v. Commissioner of Correction, 29 Mass.App.Ct. 190, 192 n. 5, 558 N.E.2d 1001 (1990), where we refused to rely upon a rule 1:28 decision cited by one of the parties "[w]ithout assessing any similarities and differences between that case and the present one."

Edison's argument on this point is that Horner's case and the decision in McKenzie are "related" because both deal with the same release in an identical context. There is no question that the substantive issues are related and that for informational purposes the McKenzie case might have some value. However, as we said in Lyons, unpublished decisions involving other parties are not to be relied upon. 19 Mass.App.Ct. at 566, 476 N.E.2d 243. The most important factor is that summary decisions, although open to public examination, are made only by the panel of justices who decide the case. If a decision is to be a summary disposition order, it is not circulated to the other members of this court and reflects only the views of that particular three-judge panel. If a decision is to be published in the official reports of the court, it is circulated to all other justices who are free to make any comments or suggestions concerning the draft decision. That remains a crucial distinction because a published opinion represents the view of the entire court. See Sciaba Constr. Corp. v. Boston, 35 Mass.App.Ct. 181, 181 n. 2, 617 N.E.2d 1023 (1993). 2

With that preliminary question answered, we turn to Horner's various arguments that the release does not bar his third-party action. The question turns upon an agreement signed by Horner as part of his application for employment with Wackenhut in 1988. He signed a section entitled "Understanding and Agreements," the pertinent part of which is set forth in the margin of our opinion. 3

Of several arguments made by Horner, the principal one adopted by the motion judge is that the release violates public policy because G.L. c. 152, § 15, specifically grants an employee the right to proceed to enforce liability against a third party whose negligence has caused the employee's injury. 4 Although Horner's brief does not elaborate on the point, the essence of his position is that, if employers can compel employees, in exchange for hiring them, to forgo any redress for injuries caused by the negligence of the employer's customers, those employers will have an advantage in the marketplace at the employees' expense.

The theory has surface appeal, but once examined there are several flaws. In a variety of ways, the agreement is not inconsistent with the principal consideration that forms the basis of our workers' compensation laws. The release does not require Horner to strip himself of compensation benefits for his injury, and allocation of risk by means of a release is generally not against public policy. See Gonsalves v. Commonwealth, 27 Mass.App.Ct. 606, 608, 541 N.E.2d 366 (1989). Further, the agreement does not cover all contingent liability. In exchange for employment, it extinguishes only the employee's right to recover additional amounts as a result of a work-related injury for which the employee has already received workers' compensation benefits. As stated in Edgin v. Entergy Operations, Inc., 331 Ark. 162, 168, 961 S.W.2d 724 (1998), in which on indistinguishable facts the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the identical release, "the employee is merely agreeing to waive an additional remedy against a client of Wackenhut in exchange for employment." In this respect, we cannot say that the agreement violates public policy by discouraging the employer or its clients from exercising care. Viewed as a whole, the release is not extracted by the employer as a shield against its own liability but rather as protection for its customers for those risks assumed by its employees who, in turn, are covered by workers' compensation insurance.

Enforcement of the release is not unconscionable. Horner does not claim that the release was concealed from him, that he signed it under duress, or that its contents were misrepresented. Cormier v. Central Mass. Chapter of the Natl. Safety Council, 416 Mass. 286, 288-289, 620 N.E.2d 784 (1993). The release specifically mentions that the employee is releasing any claims against customers of the employer that might arise under the workers' compensation law. Nor does Horner argue that he could not have worked for any other employer if he did not sign the release. See Minassian v. Ogden Suffolk Downs, Inc., 400 Mass. 490, 493, 509 N.E.2d 1190 (1987).

Horner also makes an unfocused argument that the release is invalid because of some alleged ambiguity. Without citation to any authority, the argument is reduced to a naked claim that "the language of the [release] itself, in addition to being disguised as an employment application," fails as an agreement for lack of consideration. We do not agree. There is no mistaking the document for what it purports to be. The application states that the release of rights is made "in consideration of any offer of employment by Wackenhut." And there is no question that Horner became employed by Wackenhut after he filled out the employment application. Secondly, Horner was an at-will employee, who could leave or be discharged from Wackenhut's employ at any time. Thus, even if we assume that Wackenhut agreed to employ him or that he began working for Wackenhut prior to signing the employment application, his continued employment, as of July 27, 1988, was dependent on his filling out and signing the application. This constitutes sufficient consideration for the release of claims. Coveney v. President & Trustees of the College of the Holy Cross, 388 Mass. 16, 21-23, 445 N.E.2d 136 (1983).

Horner urges that the release was voidable because it was not a subject of collective bargaining. The short answer to...

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