Rite-Aid Corp. v. Davis, No. A06A0682.

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
Citation634 S.E.2d 480,280 Ga. App. 522
Docket NumberNo. A06A0682.
PartiesRITE-AID CORP. et al. v. DAVIS.
Decision Date13 July 2006
280 Ga. App. 522
634 S.E.2d 480
No. A06A0682.
Court of Appeals of Georgia.
July 13, 2006.

Page 481

Drew, Eckl & Farnham, John C. Bruffey, JR., Christi L. Hodges, Atlanta, for appellants.

Westmoreland, Patterson, Moseley & Hinson, Thomas W. Herman, Macon, for appellee.

BARNES, Judge.

Rite-Aid Corporation and the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania appeal the superior court's order reversing the decision of the workers' compensation appellate division against Barbara Davis. The superior court reinstated the decision of the administrative law judge ("ALJ"), who found Davis entitled to compensation for a catastrophic injury. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

[280 Ga. App. 523] 1. OCGA § 34-9-200.1(g)(6) defines "catastrophic injury." The statute as it existed in May 1996 when Davis was injured defined "catastrophic injury" six ways. The first five ways describe particular injuries that qualify as catastrophic, such as, for example, a spinal cord injury causing paralysis, a severe closed-head injury, or loss of a foot or leg. The sixth category defined catastrophic injury as "[a]ny other injury of a nature and severity that prevents the employee from being able to perform his or her prior work or any work available in substantial numbers within the national economy." (Emphasis supplied.) The statute was changed in 1997 to change the "or" emphasized above to "and," and to limit consideration of the work performed in the national economy to work "for which such employee is otherwise qualified." If Davis is classified as having a catastrophic injury, then the 400-week limit on benefits does not apply to her. OCGA § 34-9-261.

Davis was injured when she unloaded boxes weighing more than 100 pounds, which she slid off of a stack and dropped onto her neck and shoulder. The ALJ found that Davis presented evidence that she could not perform her prior work, and thus her injury was catastrophic even though she could perform work available in substantial numbers in the national economy for which she is qualified. The appellate division, however, reversed the ALJ, concluding that the legislators actually meant to require a claimant to establish both that she could not perform her prior work and that she could not perform any other work available in substantial numbers within the national economy. The appellate division accepted all of the ALJ's findings of fact, "as such findings are supported by a preponderance of competent and credible evidence contained within the record on review." On appeal, the superior court reversed the appellate division and reinstated the award to Davis, finding that the statute as written was not ambiguous, absurd, or wholly impractical. "The code says `or,' and this court can find no grounds to interpret `or' to mean `and,' particularly without some type of evidence that

Page 482

there was error in the drafting of the statute."

While we must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the party prevailing before the State Board, whose findings are conclusive and binding if supported by any evidence, Davis v. Carter Mechanical, 272 Ga.App. 773, 775, 612 S.E.2d 879 (2005), we review the application of law to those findings de novo. Hill v. Omni Hotel at CNN Center, 268 Ga.App. 144, 146, 601 S.E.2d 472 (2004).

Rite-Aid argues on appeal that the trial court erred as a matter of law in reversing the appellate division's decision "by failing to acknowledge the Legislature's intent when interpreting OCGA § 34-9-200.1(g)(6)," which was to use "and" instead of "or" in the 1995 amendment. To support that argument, Rite-Aid claims that three [280 Ga. App. 524] factors establish the legislative intent: (1) its 1997 amendment of the Code to change "or" to "and"; (2) the legislature changed the "error" the first chance it had; and (3) the legislature did not intend to create a special class of catastrophic cases having a lesser burden of proof. The discussion of the legislative history contained within Rite-Aid's brief, however, contains no citations to the record or any authority to support its contention that the initial draft of the 1995 amendment required a claimant to prove both that she could not perform her prior work and that she could not perform any other work available in substantial numbers, and that somehow the word "and" was changed to "or" due to a typographical error.

The Supreme Court of Georgia summarized the guidelines for statutory interpretation as follows:

In construing a statute, our goal is to determine its legislative purpose. In this regard, a court must first focus on the statute's text. In order to discern the meaning of the words of a statute, the reader must look at the context in which the statute was written, remembering at all times that the meaning of a sentence may be more than that of the separate words, as a melody is more than the notes. If the words of a statute, however, are plain and capable of having but one meaning, and do not produce any absurd, impractical, or contradictory results, then this Court is bound to follow the meaning of those words. If, on the other hand, the words of the statute are ambiguous, then this Court must construe the statute, keeping in mind the purpose of the statute and "the old law, the evil, and the remedy." OCGA § 1-3-1(a).

(Citations and punctuation omitted; emphasis supplied.) Busch v. State, 271 Ga. 591, 592, 523 S.E.2d 21 (1999). Thus the first step in construing legislative intent of OCGA § 34-9-200.1(g)(6) is to determine whether its words are "plain and capable of having but one meaning, and do not produce any absurd, impractical, or contradictory results" and determine whether it is susceptible to interpretation. Id. "Where a statute is susceptible of one and only one construction, this court can not adopt a different construction merely to relieve [the] parties of some real or imagined hardship; but if the law is valid, we can only apply it in the form into which it was finally adopted as a statute by the lawmaking body." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) State Revenue Comm. v. Nat. Biscuit Co., 179 Ga. 90, 100, 175 S.E. 368 (1934).

In this case, "[w]here there is no ambiguity, our job is simply to look at the words the legislature used, not to interpret what we think they must have meant." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Gordon [280 Ga. App. 525] v. Atlanta Cas. Co., 279 Ga. 148, 149, 611 S.E.2d 24 (2005). OCGA § 34-9-200.1(g)(6) clearly provides that a worker has a catastrophic injury if he proves that he cannot perform his prior work or that he cannot perform any work available in substantial numbers within the national economy. A court "should never by construction add to, take from, or vary the meaning of unambiguous words in the statute." Brooks v. Brooks, 185 Ga. 549, 554, 195 S.E. 869 (1938). Where there is no ambiguity, as in this case, our job is simply to look at the words the legislature used, not to interpret what we think they must have meant.

Consideration of the three statutory changes to this subsection from 1992 to 1997

Page 483

supports this conclusion. Before 1992, the law provided no cap on temporary total disability income benefits (OCGA § 34-9-261 (1991)), the need for rehabilitation benefits was evaluated in all claims, and "catastrophic injury" was defined, in addition to five specific physical injuries, as "any other injury determined to be catastrophic in nature by the board." OCGA § 34-9-200.1(h)(6) (1991).

In 1992, the legislature set a cap of a maximum of 400 weeks from the date of injury, unless the injury was catastrophic. Catastrophic injuries were defined as the five specific injuries, or when the claimant suffered "[a]ny other injury of a nature and severity as has qualified or would qualify an employee to receive disability income benefits under Title II or supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act as such Act exists on July 1, 1992, without regard to any time limitations provided under such Act." OCGA § 34-9-200.1(g)(6) (1992). Claimants with catastrophic injuries were entitled to mandatory rehabilitation services, but the need for such services was no longer evaluated for all claims. OCGA § 34-9-200.1(a).

In 1995, the legislature changed the language so that a claimant was no longer automatically deemed to have a catastrophic injury simply because he was awarded federal disability benefits, but was entitled to introduce that award into evidence for consideration. OCGA § 34-9-200.1(g)(6) (1995). The...

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