Lahti v. Fosterling

Decision Date24 November 1959
Docket NumberNo. 21,21
Citation357 Mich. 578,99 N.W.2d 490
PartiesJohn LAHTI, by Alma Lahti, his Guardian, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Clinton FOSTERLING and Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Aaron Lowenstein, Negaunee, for plaintiff and appellant.

Davidson & Clancey, Ishpeming, Walter L. Hansen, Ishpeming, of counsel, for appellees.

Before the Entire Bench.

KAVANAGH, Justice.

John Lahti was injured on October 4, 1954, while working as a wood-cutter for the defendant employer. A spruce tree cut by him fell against a dead poplar which broke off and struck his head. He was a bed patient from that time until his death on February 10, 1958. He suffered a comminuted and compound fracture of the skull, permanent paralysis, loss of speech, and inability to consume food in the natural manner, and was totally and permanently disabled requiring continuous and substantial medical, nursing, and hospital care.

The expense of the continuous hospitalization and medical care was voluntarily assumed by the defendants through October 4, 1956, a period of 2 years, or 4 six-month periods from the date of the injury. Compensation at the regular rate was also paid plaintiff.

On October 25, 1956, an application for hearing and adjustment of claim was filed. The application indicated that the only person dependent upon John Lahti on the date of injury was Alma Lahti, his wife.

The hearing referee found, after a hearing, that the employee did receive a personal injury arising out of an in the course of his employment and ordered payment of compensation at the rate of $34 per week until the further order of the department. He also ordered 'that said defendants shall reimburse said employee for all medical care furnished to and made necessary because of his injury for a period of 24 months immediately following October 4, 1954.' The referee further found that 'defendants have paid or caused to be paid to the plaintiff or his guardian all of the medical bills which they are obligated to pay in this cause.'

Plaintiff took the matter to the appeal board. The award of the hearing referee was affirmed. Application for leave to appeal to this Court was granted.

Two questions are presented to this Court for decision:

(1) 'Is appellant's right to payment of medical and hospital expenses fixed by the statute in effect at the time of the injury?'

(2) 'Does the fact of voluntary payment of medical and hospital expenses by appellees, without requiring appellant to first make written application to the Commission therefor, during the first two years following the injury give appellant a right to recover further compensation for medical and hospital expenses?'

At the time of the injury on October 4, 1954, part 2, § 4, of the workmen's compensation law provided, insofar as is relevant here, as follows:

'The employer shall furnish, or cause to be furnished, reasonable medical, surgical, and hospital services and medicines when they are needed, for the first 6 months after the injury and thereafter for not more than 3 additional 6 month periods in the discretion of the commission, upon written request of the employee to the commission for each period and after the employer or his insurer has been given an opportunity to file objections thereto and to be heard thereon.' (C.L.S.1954, § 412.4 [Stat.Ann.1950 Rev. § 17.154]).

Pursuant to the above section, defendants furnished medical and hospital care to John Lahti for a period of 2 years immediately following his injury.

Effective June 25, 1955, part 2, § 4, of the workmen's compensation law was amended to provide as follows:

'The employer shall furnish, or cause to be furnished, to an employee who receives a personal injury arising out of and in the course of his employment, reasonable medical, surgical and hospital services and medicines or other attendance or treatment recognized by the laws of this state as legal, when they are needed, for the first 6 months after the injury and thereafter for such additional 6 month period as the commission may in its discretion order. Such additional 6 month periods shall be granted only upon written request of the employee to the commission for each period and after the employer or his insurer has been given an opportunity to file objections thereto and to be heard thereon.' (C.L.S.1956, § 412.4 [Stat.Ann.1957 Cum.Supp. § 17.154]).

Plaintiff contends that the 1955 amendment is retroactive in effect and that the appeal board could, in its discretion, grant plaintiff further medical care. Plaintiff bases this claim on the fact that the amendment is remedial, that it is intended to correct an existing injustice, that it does not create a new cause of action, that the elimination of the restriction limiting medical benefits to 4 six-month periods was merely the removal of a statutory defense, and that, therefore, the amendment has retroactive effect.

It is the defendants' contention that the right to compensation becomes fixed at the time the cause of action accrues and that subsequent amendments will not operate to either enlarge or cut down such rights. In support of this theory they cite Allen v. Kalamazoo Paraffine Co., 312 Mich. 575, 20 N.W.2d 731; Tarnow v. Railway Express Agency, 331 Mich. 558, 50 N.W.2d 318, and other cases in which this Court dealt with weekly benefits paid under the workmen's compensation law.

Defendant cite the case of Dornbos v. Bloch & Guggenheimer, Inc., 326 Mich. 626, 40 N.W.2d 749, as authority for the position that medical and hospital bills are compensation. They also cite Munson v. Christie, 270 Mich. 94, 258 N.W. 415, and Kurtz v. Shawley Motor Freight Co., 270 Mich. 112, 258 N.W. 421, which cover sick benefits and death benefits.

In the Dornbos case Justice Carr ruled that hospital and medical services are within the term compensation as the term is used in the statute of limitations in part 2, § 15, of the act.

It is to be noted that in all of these cases this Court has emphasized that such benefits are a form of compensation for some purposes but not necessarily for all.

All of these cases are decided upon the theory that rights vested at the time of injury, and since the workmen's compensation act is statutory, and since the employment is based upon a contract, for the legislature to change the remedies would be a violation of the rights of the parties and the contract.

In dealing with the workmen's compensation act, it is necessary occasionally to bring ourselves back to the original aims and purposes of the act in order to better understand the rights of the parties involved. Naturally, in the construction of the act over a great many years, some unfortunate language has crept into opinions, which, by process of repetition, has become looked upon as the proper construction of the act.

The act was originally adopted to give employers protection against common-law actions and a to place upon industry, where it properly belongs, not only the expense of the hospital and medical bills of the injured employee, but place upon it the burden of making a reasonable contribution to the sustenance of that employee and his dependents during the period of time he is incapacitated from work. This was the express intent of the legislature in adopting this law.

Justice North writing in Munson v. Christie, 270 Mich. 94, 97-99, 258 N.W. 415, 416, said:

'Consideration of the act discloses that insofar as it provides for remedial action, it concerns only two classes of persons--employers and employees, the latter term being used in its broader sense as including dependents. City of Grand Rapids v. Crocker, 219 Mich. 178, 189 N.W. 221. Herein we are concerned only with employers and employees who are under the Workmen's Compensation Law. All rights and remedies provided by the act are to be asserted and obtained through the commission created by the act. Section 16, pt. 3 (2 Comp.Laws 1929, § 8455). In no other forum can such rights or remedies be considered and determined. This necessarily follows because employers and employees who are under the terms of the act may not resort to common-law actions to secure adjudication of rights and liabilities arising from industrial accidents. Section 16, pt. 3. As to employers and employees under the act 'the right to compensation or damage' incident to an industrial injury suffered by an employee is restricted to such as the act provides. It appears from the title the act is one providing that as against the employer the injured employee and his dependents have no rights and can enforce no liability except those provided in the act. We need not read beyond the title of the act to find this intent and purpose of the legislature clearly expressed. In the body of the act this provision reads:

"If the employee, or his dependents, in case of his death, of any employer subject to the provisions of this act files any claim with, or accepts any payment from such employer, or any insurance company carrying such risks, or from the commissioner of insurance on account of personal injury, or makes any agreement, or submits any question to arbitration under this act, such action shall constitute a release to such employer of all claims or demands at law, if any, arising from such injury.' Part 6, § 1 (2 Comp.Laws 1929, § 8478); see, also, part 3, § 16 (Comp.Laws 1929, § 8455).

'The Workmen's Compensation Act by legislative flat fixes the rights and liabilities of employers and injured employees and provides a means or forum for determining such rights and liabilities in cases of controversy between employers and injured employees or their dependents. The primary purpose of this legislation is to secure to the injured employee, and in the event of his death resulting from such injury, to his dependents, compensation which the Legislature believed should be a charge upon the industry and made payable through the...

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