Philip Electronics North America v. Wright

Decision Date01 September 1997
Docket NumberNo. 12,12
Citation703 A.2d 150,348 Md. 209
PartiesPHILIP ELECTRONICS NORTH AMERICA, et al. v. Patricia WRIGHT. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Craig T. Walsworth, Campen & Walsworth, P.A., Easton, Donald S. Saiontz, Robert J. Zarbin, Saiontz & Kirk, P.A., Baltimore, on brief, for petitioner.

Robert J. Zarbin (Donald S. Saiontz, Saiontz & Kirk, P.A., on brief), Baltimore, for respondent.

Argued before BELL, C.J., ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, CHASANOW, RAKER and WILNER, JJ., and ROBERT L. KARWACKI, J. (retired), Specially Assigned.

RAKER, Judge.

We are called upon in this case to interpret the Workers' Compensation Act, Maryland Code (1991 Repl.Vol., 1997 Supp.), Title 9 of the Labor and Employment Article (hereinafter "Act"). 1 We must determine whether, after an award to a claimant is reduced pursuant to a petition for judicial review, the employer is entitled to a credit for the total amount of money paid to the claimant before the reduction of the original award, or whether the appropriate credit is the number of weeks the employer paid benefits prior to the reduction. We shall hold that a credit based upon the number of weeks the employer has paid benefits is proper.

I.

This case arose out of a knee injury suffered by claimant Patricia Wright ("Wright") on February 7, 1990 during the course of her employment. Subsequently, while attempting to rehabilitate her injured left knee, Wright developed an adverse psychological condition related to her physical injury. Pursuant to those injuries, Wright filed a claim for compensation with the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission ("Commission") against her employer, Philip Electronics North America, and its insurer, Travelers Indemnity Company of Illinois (collectively "Philip Electronics").

On November 19, 1992, the Commission conducted a hearing to determine the amount of compensation due Wright under the Act. By written order, on November 30, 1992, the Commission found that Wright had suffered a permanent partial disability loss of 50% of the use of her body as a whole, under "other cases," due to the injury to her knee and the resulting psychological condition. 2 See § 9-627(k). Accordingly, the Commission ordered Philip Electronics to pay Wright permanent partial disability benefits at the rate of $178 per week for 333 weeks pursuant to § 9-630.

Both Philip Electronics and Wright filed a petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County. After hearing the evidence, on November 23, 1993, a jury returned a verdict finding that Wright had sustained a 40% loss of the use of her body as a whole as a consequence of the injuries arising out of her employment. Upon remand, on November 17, 1994, the Commission recalculated Wright's benefits, and found that she was entitled to $144 per week for 200 weeks. Significantly, the Commission also gave Philip Electronics a credit for the amount of the monetary payments made under the Commission's original order of November 30, 1992.

Aggrieved by the Commission's decision to allow Philip Electronics a credit for the total amount of monetary benefits paid under the Commission's original order, Wright filed a second petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County. On September 22, 1995, the circuit court granted Philip Electronics' motion for summary judgment, also concluding that Philip Electronics was entitled to a credit for the total amount of monetary benefits already paid. Wright subsequently filed a timely notice of appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.

Rejecting the "total monetary" credit approach advocated by Philip Electronics, the intermediate appellate court reversed the judgment of the circuit court. See Wright v. Philip Electronics, 112 Md.App. 642, 685 A.2d 1216 (1996). This Court then granted Philip Electronics' petition for writ of certiorari to resolve the primary legal issue presented by this case. We now affirm.

II.

Before this Court, Philip Electronics argues that the Court of Special Appeals erred by holding that an employer is entitled only to credit for the number of weeks of benefits paid, rather than a credit for the total monetary sum expended, after an initial award by the Commission has been reduced by the circuit court. Philip Electronics' argument is primarily an equitable one: It is unjust for a claimant to receive benefits greater than the amount awarded by the trier of fact in a petition for judicial review at the circuit court. To illustrate, Philip Electronics cites the facts of this case. The jury found that Wright suffered a 40% loss of the use of her body as a whole as a consequence of her work-related injuries. Under the statutory framework, this finding translated into benefits of $144 per week for 200 weeks, for a total of $28,800. At the time of the filing of the petition for judicial review which is the subject of this appeal, Philip Electronics had paid Wright benefits totaling $32,772; and should the Court of Special Appeals' holding be affirmed, with Philip Electronics consequently obligated to pay 53 more weeks in benefits, the end result would be payments totaling $39,600 3--or $10,800 more than the amount mandated by the jury verdict.

Philip Electronics contends this $10,800 overpayment unfairly deprives it of rightful funds, as well as unjustly enriching Wright. Philip Electronics emphasizes it does not wish to "recover back" funds already paid to Wright, but rather wishes only an offset against the debt owed to her consistent with the decision of the jury in this case. 4

In contrast, Wright argues the Court of Special Appeals correctly concluded that, after the reduction of an award by the circuit court, an employer's credit should be based upon the number of weeks that an employer has paid benefits. Wright contends the applicable provisions of the Act are written in terms of weeks of disability, thereby implying that this is the appropriate frame of reference to determine the proper credit. Wright also argues that an approach focusing only upon the total amount of money paid to a claimant is inconsistent with the purposes of the Act. We agree with Wright.

III.

The Maryland Workers Compensation Act was originally enacted in 1914 to compensate employees for the loss of earning capacity resulting from accidental injury, disease, or death occurring during the course of employment. DeBusk v. Johns Hopkins, 342 Md. 432, 437, 677 A.2d 73, 75 (1996). Under the Act, an employer is liable to an employee for such an injury regardless of fault. § 9-501(b); Great Atlantic Tea v. Imbraguglio, 346 Md. 573, 582, 697 A.2d 885, 889-90 (1997). Ordinarily, the compensation provided by the Act is the employee's exclusive remedy for a job-related injury. § 9-509; Hastings v. Mechalske, 336 Md. 663, 672, 650 A.2d 274, 278 (1994).

As we have repeatedly emphasized, the Act is remedial in nature and " 'should be construed as liberally in favor of injured employees as its provisions will permit in order to effectuate its benevolent purposes.' " Para v. Richards Group, 339 Md. 241, 251, 661 A.2d 737, 742 (1995) (quoting Howard Co. Ass'n Retard. Cit. v. Walls, 288 Md. 526, 530, 418 A.2d 1210, 1213 (1980)); see § 9-102(a). Thus, in interpreting the Act, we do not apply the canon of construction that a statute in derogation of the common law should be strictly construed. § 9-102(b). Moreover, all sections of the Act must be read together, in conjunction with one another, to discern the true intent of the legislature. Vest v. Giant Food Stores, Inc., 329 Md. 461, 466-67, 620 A.2d 340, 342 (1993); Ryder Truck Lines v. Kennedy, 296 Md. 528, 537, 463 A.2d 850, 856 (1983). Of course, we seek to avoid an interpretation which would lead to an untenable or illogical outcome. Greco v. State, 347 Md. 423, 429, 701 A.2d 419, 422 (1997); Waskiewicz v. General Motors Corp., 342 Md. 699, 708, 679 A.2d 1094, 1099 (1996); see also Superior Builders, Inc. v. Brown, 208 Md. 539, 543, 119 A.2d 376, 378 (1956) ("The Act should receive a practical construction, and should be so interpreted and construed as to effectuate its general purpose.").

In construing the Act, as in construing all statutes, the paramount objective is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. Marriott Employees v. MVA, 346 Md. 437, 444, 697 A.2d 455, 458 (1997); Bowen v. Smith, 342 Md. 449, 454, 677 A.2d 81, 83 (1996). In interpreting the Act, we apply the following general principles. First, if the plain meaning of the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, and consistent with both the broad purposes of the legislation, and the specific purpose of the provision being interpreted, our inquiry is at an end. Marriott Employees, 346 Md. at 445, 697 A.2d at 458; Frank v. Baltimore County, 284 Md. 655, 661, 399 A.2d 250, 254 (1979); see Polomski v. Baltimore, 344 Md. 70, 75-76, 684 A.2d 1338, 1340 (1996). Second, when the meaning of the plain language is ambiguous or unclear, we seek to discern the intent of the legislature from surrounding circumstances, such as legislative history, prior case law, and the purposes upon which the statutory framework was based. DeBusk, 342 Md. at 437, 677 A.2d at 75. Last, applying a canon of construction specific to the Act, if the intent of the legislature is ambiguous or remains unclear, we resolve any uncertainty in favor of the claimant. Baltimore v. Cassidy,338 Md. 88, 97, 656 A.2d 757, 761-62 (1995); Lovellette v. Baltimore, 297 Md. 271, 282, 465 A.2d 1141, 1147 (1983).

This Court, however, may not stifle the plain meaning of the Act, or exceed its purposes, so that the injured worker may prevail. Morris v. Board of Education, 339 Md. 374, 384, 663 A.2d 578, 583 (1995). Similarly, the Court may not create ambiguity or uncertainty in the Act's provisions where none exists so that a provision may be interpreted in favor of the injured claimant. R & T Construction v. Judge, 82 Md.App. 700, 709, 573...

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