Polomski v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore

Decision Date01 September 1995
Docket NumberNo. 140,140
Citation344 Md. 70,684 A.2d 1338
PartiesLeonard POLOMSKI v. MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

David E.C. Grant (John E. Kelly, John E. Kelly, P.A., on brief), Bel Air, for Petitioner.

David B. Allen, Principal Counsel, Herbert Burgunder, Jr., Senior Solicitor (Neal M. Janey, City Solicitor; Stanley C. Rogosin, Associate Solicitor, all on brief), Baltimore, for Respondent.

Argued before ROBERT C. MURPHY, * C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, CHASANOW, KARWACKI, BELL and RAKER, JJ.

KARWACKI, Judge.

In this case, we construe Maryland Code (1991 Repl.Vol., 1996 Cum.Supp.), § 9-503(d)(2) of the Labor and Employment Article, 1 the so-called "offset provision" of § 9-503 of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act (hereinafter "Workers' Compensation Act" or "the Act"). Specifically, we are asked the narrow question of whether § 9-503(d)(2) requires the reduction of workers' compensation benefits for a disability caused by an occupational disease paid to a retired fire fighter who is also receiving retirement benefits under a service pension plan. We shall hold that it does not affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

I.

The facts are undisputed. After working as a Baltimore City fire fighter for nearly 38 years, Leonard Polomski was earning a weekly wage of $676.32. On September 4, 1992, Polomski applied for, and received, a "time-earned" service retirement, effective March 3, 1993, for which he was compensated at the biweekly rate of $1,128.69, or $564.35 per week. 2 Shortly thereafter, Polomski also applied for workers' compensation benefits for heart disease, hypertension, and lung ailments under § 9-503(a), which provides in pertinent part:

"(a) Heart disease, hypertension, and lung disease--Fire fighters, fire fighting instructors, and rescue squad members.--A paid fire fighter or paid fire fighting instructor employed by an airport authority, a county, a fire control district, a municipality, or the State or a volunteer fire fighter, volunteer fire fighting instructor, or volunteer rescue squad member who is a covered employee under § 9-234 of this title is presumed to have an occupational disease that was suffered in the line of duty and is compensable under this title if:

(1) the individual has heart disease, hypertension or lung disease;

(2) the heart disease, hypertension, or lung disease results in partial or total disability or death; ...."

The Workers' Compensation Commission (hereinafter "Commission") concluded that Polomski "sustained an occupational disease ... arising out of and in the course of his employment; and [allowed his] claim for temporary total disability from September 4, 1992 to February 4, 1994 inclusive; subject to a credit for wages paid." 3 The Commissioner ordered Baltimore City to pay Polomski the unadjusted rate of $451.00 per week beginning February 5, 1992 for the period September 4, 1992 to February 4, 1994. The Mayor and City Council of Baltimore ("the City") appealed that Order to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, contending Polomski's workers' compensation benefits were limited to $111.97 by § 9-503(d)(2). 4

The circuit court affirmed the Order of the Commission. The City appealed that judgment to the Court of Special Appeals. The intermediate appellate court reversed, holding that the clear language of § 9-503(d)(2) expressly requires the Commissioner to reduce Polomski's workers' compensation award so that, when combined with his "retirement benefits," his payments would not exceed his weekly salary earned while still employed as a fire fighter. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore v. Polomski, 106 Md.App. 689, 666 A.2d 895 (1995). We issued a writ of certiorari to determine the application of § 9-503(d)(2) to the facts of the instant case.

II.

In construing any statute, our principal mission is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature. Bowen v. Smith, 342 Md. 449, 454, 677 A.2d 81, 83 (1996); Soper v. Montgomery County, 294 Md. 331, 335, 449 A.2d 1158, 1160 (1982). The primary source of that intent is the language of the statute itself. Bowen, 342 Md. at 454, 677 A.2d at 83. Where the legislative will is not immediately apparent from the language of the statute, we employ the canons of statutory construction to guide our inquiry. See, e.g., Kaczorowski v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 309 Md. 505, 511-16, 525 A.2d 628 (1987) (and cases cited therein).

When, however, the language of the statute is clear, further analysis of legislative intent ordinarily is not required, Rose v. Fox Pool, 335 Md. 351, 359, 643 A.2d 906, 910 (1994); Scaggs v. Baltimore & W.R. Co., 10 Md. 268 (1856), and we give the words of the statute their ordinary and common meaning within the context in which they are used, Kaczorowski, 309 Md. at 514, 525 A.2d at 632. This, of course, is done while keeping in mind the overall purpose of the Act being construed, for legislative purpose is the context in which words of a statute are used. Id. at 516, 525 A.2d at 633. Cognizant of these principles, we now turn to the objectives of the Workers' Compensation Act and to the language of § 9-503(d)(2).

III.

By Chapter 800 of the Acts of 1914, the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act was enacted into law in this State. Since that time, the Act has gone through several revisions, reflecting both changes in societal attitudes, workplace realities, and, of course, political compromises. 5 Despite some peripheral sparring over the proper aims of the Act and the role of the Commission, the core values that prompted this beneficial legislation have never been abandoned. Although the Act's name suggests that it was intended solely for the benefit of employees, the preamble to the 1914 Act, and, indeed, our previous holdings, reveal otherwise.

In reality, the Act protects employees, employers, and the public alike. To be sure, the Act maintains a no-fault compensation system for employees and their families for work-related injuries where compensation for lost earning capacity is otherwise unavailable. See Bethlehem-Sparrows Point Shipyard v. Damasiewicz, 187 Md. 474, 480, 50 A.2d 799, 802 (1947); Paul v. Glidden Co., 184 Md. 114, 119, 39 A.2d 544, 546 (1944). At the same time, however, the Act also recognizes the need to protect employers from the unpredictable nature and expense of litigation, and the public from the overwhelming tax burden of "caring for the helpless human wreckage found [along] the trail of modern industry." Liggett & Meyers Tobacco Company v. Goslin, 163 Md. 74, 80, 160 A. 804, 807, (1932); Brenner v. Brenner, 127 Md. 189, 192, 96 A. 287, 288 (1915). See Ch. 800 of the Acts of 1914; see also Belcher v. T. Rowe Price, 329 Md. 709, 736-37, 621 A.2d 872, 885-86 (1993). In other words, the Act provides employees suffering from work-related accidental injuries, regardless of fault, with a certain, efficient, and dignified form of compensation. In exchange, employees abandon common law remedies, thereby relieving employers from the vagaries of tort liability. Belcher, 329 Md. at 736, 621 A.2d at 885 (citing 1 Arthur Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation, § 1.20 at 2 (1992)). 6

Of course, twenty-five years of experience brought inevitable maturity to the Act, and the Legislature eventually recognized that accidents were not the sole cause of employee harm. By Chapter 465 of the Acts of 1939, certain occupational diseases 7 were deemed compensable if contracted during the course of employment. The 1939 amendments to the Act entitled employees disabled or killed by specific enumerated occupational diseases to compensation "as if such disablement or death were an injury by accident." Ch. 465, § 32B of the Acts of 1939. Prior to that time, occupational diseases were not compensable. Gunter v. Sharp & Dohme, 159 Md. 438, 445-46, 151 A. 134, 137-38 (1930). But see State v. North East Fire Brick Co., 180 Md. 367, 369-70, 24 A.2d 287, 288 (1942); Victory Sparkler Co. v. Francks, 147 Md. 368, 378-80, 128 A. 635, 638-39 (1925) (holding that, although occupational diseases are not compensable, employer negligence may render the disease "accidental" and bring the injury within the provisions of the Act). Eventually, the practice of enumerating specific diseases was abandoned, and all occupational diseases 8 were, subject to certain conditions not here relevant, deemed compensable. See Ch. 528 of the Acts of 1951, now codified and amended as Md.Code (1991 Repl.Vol., 1996 Supp.) § 9-502 of the Labor and Employment Article. As with accidental injuries, the burden of proving a disease as occupational generally fell to the claimant. See generally § 9-101.

A little more than three decades after its formal recognition of occupational diseases, the General Assembly turned its attention to certain fire fighters, concluding that they were susceptible to diseases formerly not recognized as occupational. See Board of County Commr's for Prince George's County v. Colgan, 274 Md. 193, 208, 334 A.2d 89, 97 (1975) (holding that the Legislature may properly determine that fire fighters are exposed to health hazards not shared by other government employees); Soper, supra, 294 Md. at 335-36, 449 A.2d at 1160. By Chapter 695 of the Acts of 1971, the Legislature amended the Act and granted a presumption of compensability in favor of certain classes of fire fighters suffering from heart or lung disease, or hypertension. Big Savage Refractories Corp. v. Geary, 209 Md. 362, 366, 121 A.2d 212, 214 (1956) (heart trouble is not an occupational disease). The amendment was first codified as Md.Code (1957, 1971 Cum.Supp.), Article 101, § 64A. In 1972, the scope of § 64A was expanded to include certain police officers as well, Ch. 282 of the Acts of 1972, and is currently codified and amended as § 9-503(a)-(b).

Maryland Code (1957, 1971 Cum.Supp.), Art. 101, § 64A, incorporated a provision, later codified as Md.Code (1957, 1985 Repl.Vol.,...

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