Menzies v. Fisher

Decision Date18 July 1973
Citation334 A.2d 452,165 Conn. 338
PartiesEuphemia MENZIES v. Everett FISHER et al., (two cases).
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

James J. Quinn, Stamford, for appellee (plaintiff) in first case, and James R. Fogarty, Jr., Stamford, for appellant (plaintiff) in second case.


SHAPIRO, Associate Justice.

These consolidated cases are appeals from judgments of the Superior Court, which dismissed appeals from a finding and award of the workmen's compensation commissioner. The appeal of the plaintiff-widow, Euphemia Menzies, challenges the denial of an award of attorney's fees and the denial of a motion which sought to preclude the defendants from asserting a defense. In the appeal of the defendants Everett Fisher and The Atlantic Companies, the fundamental issue is whether the injury which led to the death of John D. Menzies was one which arose in the course of and out of his employment.

The material facts are not in dispute: The plaintiff's husband, John D. Menzies, was employed by Fisher as a chauffeur and handyman. Menzies lived in his own house, located in the northeastern area of Greenwich but drove an automobile supplied by his employer to and from work at the Fisher residence, located in the northwestern area of Greenwich. This arrangement was convenient because Menzies sometimes was required to use the automobile at night to perform services for his employer.

In the late afternoon of October 1, 1970, Menzies, having completed his normal workday, started to drive home from his employer's residence in an automobile furnished for his use by his employer. He followed his usual route home until he stopped at the home of the Horst Von Hennings, personal acquaintances of his, with the purpose of picking up their mail. The Von Hennings' home is situated on Stanwich Road in Greenwich, on a route Menzies normally took home from his place of employment, and their mailbox is located at the roadside. Menzies parked the automobile on a slight incline on Stanwich Road at the edge of the Von Hennings' driveway and got out of the automobile. Before he reached the mailbox, the automobile rolled backward down the incline and over him. The automobile was later found against a stone wall situated about fifty feet south of the mailbox with its engine running, in reverse gear and with its parking brake on. Menzies was discovered by a passerby. He died three days later.

On these facts the commissioner awarded workmen's compensation to the plaintiff, the widow of the deceased. The defendants claim that the facts do not support the conclusion that the injury was one 'arising out of and in the course of his employment' within the meaning of § 31-275 of the General Statutes as interpreted by this court. On the view we take of the case, the procedural issue raised by the plaintiff is dispositive of the defendants' appeal and it makes it unnecessary for us to consider the defendants' assignments of error.


We first consider the plaintiff's claim that the commissioner erred in refusing to grant her 'Motion to Preclude' the defendant from contesting compensability, pursuant to § 31-297(b) of the General Statutes. That section provides: 'Whenever liability to pay compensation is contested by the employer, he shall file with the compensation commissioner, on or before the twentieth day after he has received a written notice of claim, a notice in accord with a form prescribed by the commissioners stating that the right to compensation is contested, the name of the claimant, the name of the employer, the date of the alleged injury or death and the specific grounds on which the right to compensation is contested, and a copy thereof shall be sent to the employee. If the employer on his legal representative fails to file the notice contesting liability within the time prescribed herein, the employer shall be conclusively presumed to have accepted the compensability of such alleged injury or death and shall have no right thereafter to contest the employee's right to receive compensation on any grounds or the extent of his disability.' (Emphasis added). The italicized language of the statute was incorporated by Public Acts 1967, No. 842, § 7. The plaintiff claims that the defendant employer's notice, which merely stated '(w)e deny a compensable accident or injury,' was fatally deficient in failing to specify the grounds on which compensation was denied. Under the force of the 1967 amendment to § 31-267(b), therefore, she argues that the notice was inoperative and should result in the conclusive presumption that the employer has accepted the compensability of the death of John Menzies. In this connection she attacks the court's conclusion that the commissioner correctly denied the motion to preclude.

To determine the scope and operation of the 1967 amendments to § 31-297(b), it is appropriate for us to consider the circumstances surrounding their adoption. See Hartford Electric Light Co. v. Wethersfield, 165 Conn. 211, 222, 332 A.2d 83, and cases cited. The statutory changes which are of concern to us here were in one small section of a rather substantial piece of legislation, Public Acts 1967, No. 842. By this act the legislature sought to correct some of the glaring inequities and inadequacies of the Workmen's Compensation Act. Among the defects in previous provisions of the act were the needless, prejudicial delays in the proceedings before the commissioners, delays by employers or insurers in the payment of benefits, lack of knowledge on the part of employees that they were entitled to benefits and the general inequality of resources available to claimants with bona fide claims. See 12 H.R.Proc., Pt. 9, 1967 Sess., pp. 4035-37. When the amendment was proposed for passage, the member of the committee presenting the bill (1967 Sess., H.B. 2161) stated: 'The present law requires employers to give notice of intention to contest within 20 days after notice of injury. The commissioners are not in agreement as to what the results are when the employer fails to give the required notice, or where the notice involved does not comply with the law. Some hold, in effect, that there is no penalty, while others hold there is no right to contest liability, but the extent of injury may still be contested. This section clears up the situation. It provides that within 20 days after written notice of claim is made, the employer must file a statement of intention to contest and the basis upon which he will contest. If he fails to file this notice within the time stated or the notice is defective, the employer cannot thereafter contest either liability or extent of liability. This will mean that employers will now have to investigate claims promptly and act quickly; it also means that employees will be able to learn early in the proceedings what the defects are, if any, in their claims.' 12 H.R.Proc., Pt. 9, 1967 Sess., p. 4036. We take judicial notice of this transcript of the legislative proceedings. Bird v. Plunkett, 139 Conn. 491, 504, 95 A.2d 71; see Institute of Living v. Hartford, 133 Conn. 258, 265, 50 A.2d 822. The committee member's statement was a committee report, and although not controlling, may properly be considered as an aid to the determination of the legislative intent. See Hartford Electric Light Co. v. Wethersfield, supra, pp. 211, 222; Bird v. Plunkett, supra; see also 50 Am.Jur. 319-20, Statutes, § 327; 2 Sutherland, Statutory Construction (3d Ed.) p. 502.

The object which the legislature sought to accomplish is plain. Section 31-297(b) was amended to ensure (1) that employers would bear the burden of investigating a claim promptly and (2) that employees would be timely apprised of the specific reasons for the denial of their claim. These effect would, in turn, diminish delays in the proceedings, discourage arbitrary refusal of bona fide claims and narrow the legal issues which were to be contested. To narrow the scope of the controversy would lighten the burden on the claimant in terms of legal expenses, a result which the legislature plainly desired to accomplish by its 1967 amendments. See 12 H.R.Proc., Pt. 9, 1967 Sess., pp. 4037-38; cf. General Statutes § 31-298, as amended by Public Acts 1967, No. 242. A general denial that a claimant has a compensable injury reveals no specific defense or reason why the claim is contested. Such a conclusionary statement would leave open numerous possible defenses, such as a defense of lack of employer-employee status, a defense that the death was due to suicide or to homicide or a claim that death was caused by an intervening injury. As far as notifying the claimant of the specific grounds on which her claim was contested, the stated disclaimer apprised her of nothing except the fact that liability was contested. From this claimant's vantage point, if the defendants proceed on the stated defense, '(w)e deny a compensable accident or injury,' she, the claimant, must be prepared to meet any number of undisclosed objections to recovery-including her eligibility to receive compensation benefits. Neither the statute nor the Workmen's Compensation Act contemplates such an impediment to bona fide claims.

It may be argued that, seen from a strict, technical point of view, the defendants' denial of a 'compensable accident or injury' restricts the controversy to the legal questions whether the alleged injury arose out of and in the course of employment and whether it resulted in the death of John Menzies; see De la Pena v. Jackson Stone Co., 103 Conn. 93, 99-100, 130 A. 89; but to place a technical construction on a procedure designed to be simple runs counter to the spirit of the Workmen's Compensation Act, as well as to its literal provision that 'no formal pleadings shall...

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    ...were entitled to benefits and the general inequality of resources available to claimants with bona fide claims." Menzies v. Fisher , 165 Conn. 338, 342, 334 A.2d 452 (1973). The court further observed that "[t]he object which the legislature sought to accomplish is plain. [The precursor to ......
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