Jones v. Ruth

Decision Date11 September 2009
Docket Number2080249.
Citation31 So.3d 115
PartiesWillie JONES v. Ray RUTH.
CourtAlabama Court of Civil Appeals

Thomas E. James of Morris, Haynes & Hornsby, Birmingham, for appellant.

William A. Austill of Austill, Lewis & Pipkin, P.C., Birmingham, for appellee.

MOORE, Judge.

Willie Jones appeals from a summary judgment entered by the Montgomery Circuit Court in favor of Ray Ruth in a civil action based on §§ 25-5-11(c)(1) and (c)(2), Ala.Code 1975. We reverse.

Jones, a maintenance worker employed by Flowers Bakery, received severe injuries to his left hand as the result of an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment on October 29, 2006. Jones executed a settlement agreement on June 25, 2008, releasing various claims associated with his injuries. Paragraph 9(B) of the agreement Jones signed states, in pertinent part:

"B. SETTLEMENT OF COMPENSATION BENEFITS, VOCATIONAL BENEFITS, AND ANY AND ALL RIGHTS TO REOPEN THE CLAIM UNDER ALA. CODE § 25-5-57(a)(3)i (1975) AND ANY AND ALL CLAIMS REGARDING WRONGFUL TERMINATION AND RETALIATORY DISCHARGE
"The parties have agreed to settle this claim on a compromise basis. The sum of Fourteen Thousand Dollars and No Cents ($14,000) represents the complete and total lump sum settlement to Jones under the Worker's Compensation Act of the State of Alabama for any and all claims made or which may be made, arising under the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act, including, but not limited to, disability compensation benefits vocational rehabilitation services owing or alleged to be owing by Flowers Bakery to Jones arising out of the accident and claims referred to herein, and any and all rights to reopen the claim under Ala.Code § 25-5-57(a)(3)i. (1975), and any claims for wrongful termination or retaliatory discharge. By entering into and accepting the benefits of this settlement, Jones releases and fully and finally discharges Flowers Bakery and its employees ... from any claims for disability benefits, vocational rehabilitation benefits, and any claims for wrongful termination and/or retaliatory discharge, and any employment status related claims as may be made."

(Bold typeface in original.)

On that same date, the Montgomery Circuit Court approved a petition seeking approval of the settlement agreement, pursuant to § 25-5-56, Ala.Code 1975 (requiring circuit court approval of certain settlements affecting an employee's right to workers' compensation benefits). In the judgment approving the settlement agreement, the court incorporated the language from Paragraph 9(B) of the settlement agreement.

About a month following the execution of the settlement agreement and the entry of the judgment approving the settlement agreement, Jones filed a civil action in the same circuit court against Ruth. In that action, Jones alleged that Ruth had caused his injuries by willfully and intentionally removing from a machine a safety guard or safety device provided by the manufacturer of the machine with full knowledge that injury or death would likely or probably result from the removal. See Ala.Code 1975, § 25-5-11(c)(2). Jones also claimed that Ruth had willfully and intentionally injured him in violation of Ala.Code 1975, § 25-5-11(c)(1). In addition, Jones claimed that Ruth had negligently or wantonly designed the machine at issue.

On September 9, 2008, Ruth filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, a motion for a summary judgment. In that motion, Ruth argued that the settlement agreement barred the claims filed by Jones and that Jones's complaint asserting claims of negligence and wantonness did not state a claim for which relief could be granted. See Ala.Code 1975, §§ 25-5-52 and 25-5-53 (barring co-employee actions, except those based on willful conduct). After holding oral argument, the trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of Ruth. Jones filed a timely notice of appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court; that court transferred the appeal to this court, pursuant to § 12-2-7(6), Ala.Code 1975.

On appeal, Jones argues that the trial court erred in entering the summary judgment on his §§ 25-5-11(c)(1) and (c)(2) claims.1 Jones maintains that the trial court incorrectly concluded that he had released those claims.

"In the absence of fraud or ambiguity, a release supported by valuable consideration will be given effect according to the intention of the parties, which is to be judged by the court from what appears within the four corners of the instrument itself, and ordinarily parol evidence is not admissible to impeach or vary its terms."

Johnson v. Asphalt Hot Mix, 565 So.2d 219, 220 (Ala.1990) (citing Trimble v. Todd, 510 So.2d 810 (Ala.1987); Jehle-Slauson Constr. Co. v. Hood-Rich Architects & Consulting Eng'rs, 435 So.2d 716 (Ala. 1983); and Ala.Code 1975, § 12-21-109). A settlement agreement is a contract and is to be construed like any other contract. See Jones v. Bullington, 401 So.2d 740, 741 (Ala.1981). A written release must be given effect according to its plain terms. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co. v. Cochran Plastering Co., 935 So.2d 462, 471 (Ala.Civ.App.2006).

In this case, the first clause of the second sentence in Paragraph 9(B) provides that Jones releases "any and all claims made or which may be made, arising under the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act...." Ruth argues that, pursuant to Sanders v. Southern Risk Services, 603 So.2d 994 (Ala.1992), and Gates Rubber Co. v. Cantrell, 678 So.2d 754 (Ala.1996), that phrase should be construed broadly to include claims under §§ 25-5-11(c)(1) and (c)(2). In Sanders, a worker settled his workers' compensation claim against his employer. In that settlement agreement, the worker agreed to accept $7,500 "`in full settlement of any and all claims for compensation benefits due and rehabilitation or retraining benefits due under the Workmen's Compensation Act of the State of Alabama.'" 603 So.2d at 995. The settlement agreement further provided: "`When payment hereunder has been made the employer shall be, and hereby is released from all claims on account of said injury, under said Act or otherwise.'" Id. The worker subsequently sued his employer and its third-party workers' compensation administrator asserting claims of retaliatory discharge, fraud, and the denial of rehabilitation expenses. 603 So.2d at 994. In discussing the effect of the settlement agreement on the claim of retaliatory discharge, the supreme court stated: "Unless there is evidence of fraud, a settlement of an employee's claims under the Workmen's Compensation Act is conclusive of any other claims the worker may have." 603 So.2d at 995. The court ultimately held that the settlement agreement unambiguously released the employer from "all other obligations" to the worker, except its obligation to pay future medical expenses. Id. at 996.

In Cantrell, Cantrell entered into a written workers' compensation settlement agreement, which provided, in pertinent part, that in exchange for $25,000 Cantrell would release Gates Rubber Company and its workers' compensation insurance carrier

"`from any and all liability now accrued or hereafter to accrue for compensation and vocational rehabilitation benefits under the workmen's compensation laws of the State of Alabama, or otherwise, due or arising out of Cantrell's work-related injury of August 19, 1990, or any other accidental injury sustained by Cantrell while employed by Gates Rubber Company. ...'"

678 So.2d at 754-55 (emphasis omitted). Nine months later, Cantrell filed a retaliatory-discharge action against Gates Rubber. Relying heavily on its holding in Sanders, the supreme court held that

"a `settlement of any and all claims for compensation benefits due and rehabilitation or retraining benefits due' is `conclusive of any other claims,' unless there is evidence of fraud, ... or the claim in issue is expressly excepted from the settlement agreement."

678 So.2d at 756 (quoting Sanders, 603 So.2d at 995).

Sanders and Cantrell only tenuously support Ruth's argument that a release of "any and all claims arising under the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act" should be construed to bar actions under §§ 25-5-11(c)(1) and (c)(2). Most notably, neither case concerns the effect of a workers' compensation settlement agreement on a claim against a co-employee based on those subsections. In Sanders, the supreme court did hold that the language of the settlement agreement barred a claim for rehabilitation expenses made against the third-party administrator, but only because the settlement agreement specifically addressed that claim. 603 So.2d at 995. In both cases, the broad language that a release of workers' compensation benefits also releases other claims, except those expressly reserved, referred solely to claims based on retaliatory discharge under § 25-5-11.1, Ala.Code 1975.

The supreme court directly addressed the effect of a workers' compensation settlement agreement on claims under §§ 25-5-11(c)(1) and (c)(2) in Dudley v. Mesa Industries, 770 So.2d 1082 (Ala.2000). In Dudley, a worker received personal injuries in an industrial accident in 1996. In 1997, the worker brought a civil action against his employer, Mesa Industries, for workers' compensation benefits; he later amended his complaint to state a claim against the employer based on an alleged violation of § 25-5-11(c)(2).2 In 1998, the worker entered into a settlement agreement with Mesa, pursuant to which Mesa was "`released and forever discharged from any and all claims for compensation and vocational rehabilitation benefits due or which may become due to the worker under the Workmen's Compensation Act of Alabama.'" 770 So.2d at 1083. The circuit court approved the settlement agreement, but at the same time it granted the worker leave to amend his complaint. The worker later amended his complaint to allege fraud and tort-of-outrage claims against Mesa and to assert a...

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2 cases
  • Dillard's Inc. v. Gallups
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
    • September 10, 2010
    ...undersigned has alleged against the Released Parties.’ ”Walton, 4 So.3d at 538–39 (emphasis added). As we explained in Jones v. Ruth, 31 So.3d 115, 119 (Ala.Civ.App.2009), our supreme court has more recently considered release language similar to that used in Cantrell to have been insuffici......
  • Tate v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • Alabama Court of Civil Appeals
    • June 26, 2015
    ...Tate contends that a settlement agreement in a workers' compensation action is treated like any other contract, see Jones v. Ruth, 31 So.3d 115, 118 (Ala.Civ.App.2009) (construing a settlement agreement "like any other contract" to determine what claims the agreement released); thus, he con......

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