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Cochran Industries VA v. Meadows

Court of Appeals of Virginia

April 1, 2014

COCHRAN INDUSTRIES VA AND BITUMINOUS CASUALTY CORPORATION
v.
TIMOTHY M. MEADOWS

FROM THE VIRGINIA WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION.

Ramesh Murthy (Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, on brief), for appellants.

Paul L. Phipps (Mingkwan Emme Collins; Lee and Phipps, P.C., on brief), for appellee.

Amicus Curiae: Virginia Trial Lawyers Association (W. David Falcon; ChasenBoscolo, on brief), for appellee.

Present: Humphreys, Beales and Huff Judges.

OPINION

Page 490

[63 Va.App. 220] GLEN A. HUFF, JUDGE.

Cochran Industries VA and Bituminous Casualty Corporation (collectively " appellant" ) appeal a decision of the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission (" commission" ) ruling that Timothy M. Meadows (" claimant" ) timely filed a claim for compensation. On appeal, appellant contends that the commission erred in: 1) accepting a filing seeking no relief as a viable, timely claim under Code § 65.2-601; and 2) utilizing the doctrine of imposition, created by its actions in contravention with the Act, to the detriment of appellant. For the following reasons, this Court affirms the commission's decision.

I. BACKGROUND

On appeal from the commission, " we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party." R.G. Moore Bldg. Corp. v. Mullins, 10 Va.App. 211, 212, 390 S.E.2d 788, 788, 6 Va. Law Rep. 1997 (1990). If supported by credible evidence, the commission's factual findings are " binding on appeal," Tomes v. James City Fire, 39 Va.App. 424, 430, 573 S.E.2d 312, 315 (2002), " even though there is evidence in the record to support a contrary finding," Morris v. Badger Powhatan/Figgie Int'l, Inc., 3 Va.App. 276, 279, 348 S.E.2d 876, 877, 3 Va. Law Rep. 856 (1986). In addition, the commission's " conclusions upon conflicting inferences, legitimately drawn from proven facts, are equally binding on appeal." [63 Va.App. 221] Watkins v. Halco Eng'g, Inc., 225 Va. 97, 101, 300 S.E.2d 761, 763 (1983). So viewed, the evidence is as follows.

On July 9, 2010, claimant was working as a manager for appellant when a concrete cinder block fell on and crushed his right hand. Claimant filed a Claim for Benefits form[1] with the commission on August 23, 2010 with the assistance of Charlotte Cochran (" Cochran" ), an employee who handles appellant's insurance matters. Claimant, however, only completed Part A of the Claim for Benefits form. Part B of the form, which is titled " PART B -- REQUEST FOR BENEFITS (OPTIONAL)," was left blank because claimant did not know what benefits would be needed. After the form was filed, the commission issued claimant a jurisdiction claim number -- VA00000301614 -- and an " Acknowledged Protective Filing" statement dated August 26, 2010. Claimant later called the commission multiple times and asked if any other paperwork was needed for his claim. He was told that he had completed everything he needed to do.

Claimant was compensated for all of his medical treatment for the first two years after the injury. In fact, the parties stipulated that claimant's injury was compensable and that all received medical treatment for claimant's hand was " reasonable, necessary and causally related to the injur[y] . . . ." Then, on May 21, 2012, Dr. Morgan Lorio (" Lorio" ), one of claimant's treating physicians, submitted a " Surgery Planning" form to appellant recommending surgical intervention

Page 491

for claimant's " right index and middle intrinsic release." Three months later, in August 2012, claimant was informed that the proposed surgery had been denied due to the expiration of the statute of limitations on his claim. Specifically, appellant declined to pay for the proposed surgery on the ground that [63 Va.App. 222] claimant's initial Claim for Benefits form did not constitute a " claim," under Code § 65.2-601,[2] because the form did not indicate what benefits claimant was seeking and, therefore, no claim was filed before the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations.

Consequently, on September 5, 2012, claimant filed an additional Claim for Benefits form in which both Parts A and B were completed. On Part B of the form, claimant requested a " lifetime Award of medical benefits for injury; unpaid medical bills or out of pocket medical / prescription / transportation expenses relating to injury." Claimant also stated that he is " still under a doctor's care for this injury and need[s] surgical intervention to repair [his] right hand." The commission sent claimant a letter, dated September 19, 2012, that informed claimant that appellant had denied his claim submitted by the additional Claim for Benefits form on the ground that the statute of limitations had expired.

The deputy commissioner held an evidentiary hearing on February 19, 2013 and found that claimant's original Claim for Benefits form, Part A, constituted a claim for the purposes of Code § 65.2-601.[3] Consequently, the deputy commissioner entered an award ordering appellant to pay medical benefits as provided in Code § 65.2-603 for as long as necessary to treat [63 Va.App. 223] the injury to claimant's right hand. Appellant appealed this award to the full commission, which affirmed the deputy commissioner's decision. This appeal followed.

II. ANALYSIS

Appellant first contends that the commission erred in ruling that claimant's original Claim for Benefits form constituted a claim. Specifically, appellant argues the form cannot constitute a claim because it failed to state what benefits claimant sought and, therefore, no claim was filed before the expiration of the two-year statute of limitation contained in Code § 65.2-601.

" Whether the information filed with the commission is sufficient to constitute a timely filed claim [for the purposes of Code § 65.2-601] . . . is a question of fact ." Corp. Res. Mgmt., Inc. v. Southers, 51 Va.App. 118, 126, 655 S.E.2d 34, 38 (2008) (emphasis added) (citing Fairfax Cnty. Sch. Bd. v. Humphrey, 41 Va.App. 147, 158, 583 S.E.2d 65, 70 (2003)). Consequently, in the present case, " the commission's finding [that claimant's original Claim for Benefits form constituted a claim] will not be disturbed on appeal if supported by credible evidence." Id.

When considering appellant's argument on appeal, this Court is " guided by the principle that the Workers' Compensation Act 'is highly remedial.'" Id. (quoting Henderson v. Cent. Tel. Co., 233 Va. 377, 382, 355 S.E.2d 596, 599, 3 Va. Law Rep. 2494 (1987)). While " statutory construction may not be used to extend the rights created by the Act beyond the limitations and purposes set out therein," Garcia v. Mantech Int'l Corp., 2 Va.App. 749, 754, 347 S.E.2d 548, 551, 3 Va. Law Rep. 333 (1986), the Act should nevertheless " be liberally construed to advance its purpose . . . [of compensating employees] for accidental injuries resulting from the hazards

Page 492

of the employment," Henderson, 233 Va. at 382, 355 S.E.2d at 599.

" 'The right to compensation under the [Act] is granted by statute, and in giving the right the legislature has full [63 Va.App. 224] power to prescribe the time and manner of its exercise.'" Binswanger Glass Co. v. Wallace, 214 Va. 70, 73, 197 S.E.2d 191, 193 (1973) (quoting Winston v. City of Richmond, 196 Va. 403, 407, 83 S.E.2d 728, 731 (1954)). Through Code § 65.2-601, the legislature has provided that " [t]he right to compensation under [the Act] shall be forever barred[] unless a claim be filed with the [c]ommission within two years after the accident." (Emphasis added). This statute of limitation provision is jurisdictional, Barksdale v. H.O. Engen, Inc., 218 Va. 496, 497, 237 S.E.2d 794, 795 (1977), and is " designed to suppress fraudulent and stale claims from being asserted after a great lapse of time, to the surprise of the parties, when the evidence may have been lost, the facts may have become obscure because of a defective memory, or the witnesses have died or disappeared." Street v. Consumers Mining Corp., 185 Va. 561, 575, 39 S.E.2d 271, 277 (1946).

Despite requiring the timely filing of a " claim," the Act " does not give a definition of 'claim.'" Garcia, 2 Va.App. at 752, 347 S.E.2d at 550. This Court, however, " give[s] great weight to the commission's construction of the Act . . .," Bay Concrete Constr. Co. v. Davis, 43 Va.App. 528, 538-39, 600 S.E.2d 144, 150 (2004), and the commission, through its rule making authority,[4] has established the criteria for " a claim . . . filed with the commission" in Commission Rule 1.1. Arellano v. Pam E. K's Donuts Shop, 26 Va.App. 478, 483, 495 S.E.2d 519, 521 (1998) (noting that this Court " accord[s] great deference to the interpretation given by the commission to its rules" ).

Commission Rule 1.1 provides that

An original Claim for Benefits shall be in writing, signed and should set forth:
1. Employee's name and address;
2. Employer's name and address;
[63 Va.App. 225] 3. Date of accident or date of communication of occupational disease;
4. Nature of injury or occupational disease;
5. Benefits sought: temporary total, temporary partial, permanent total, permanent partial or medical benefits;
6. Periods of disability, if appropriate.

(Emphasis added). " The word 'shall[]' is primarily mandatory," whereas " the word 'should' ordinarily . . . implies no more than expediency . . . [and is] directory only." Brushy Ridge Coal Co. v. Blevins, 6 Va.App. 73, 78, 367 S.E.2d 204, 206, 4 Va. Law Rep. 2325 (1988). " Thus, Commission Rule 1.1, standing alone, does not automatically exclude from consideration a claim which omits one or more of the items of information which the rule says a claim 'should set forth.'" Massey Builders Supply Corp. v. Colgan, 36 Va.App. 496, 504, 533 S.E.2d 146, 150 (2001) (quoting Commission Rule 1.1).

In Trammel Crow Co. v. Redmond, 12 Va.App. 610, 614, 405 S.E.2d 632, 634, 7 Va. Law Rep. 2750 (1991), this Court affirmed a decision of the commission to accept, as a claim, a letter sent by a claimant's lawyer to the commission, even though the letter did not contain all of the " should set forth" elements of Commission Rule 1.1. In so holding, this Court noted that " the [commission] is not bound by technical rules of pleading or practice." Id. Indeed, a letter is sufficient to constitute a claim if it " identifies the employer, the date of the accident, the location of the accident, and the injuries suffered" and " 'fairly apprises the commission that a claim [is] being made'" on behalf of the employee. Cheski v. Arlington Cnty. Pub. Schs., 16 Va.App. 936, 938, 434 S.E.2d 353, 355, 10 Va. Law Rep. 157 (1993) (quoting Redmond, 12 Va.App. at 614, 405 S.E.2d at 634); see also Colgan, 36 Va.App. at 505, 553 S.E.2d at 150-51 (affirming the commission's decision to accept, as a claim, a signed, handwritten note and a mostly complete copy of the First Report of Injury even though the documents did not contain all of the " should set forth" elements of Commission Rule 1.1).

Page 493

Applying the above principles to the present case, this Court agrees with the commission that claimant's completion [63 Va.App. 226] and filing of Part A of the Claim for Benefits form constituted a claim for the purposes of Code § 65.2-601. Although claimant did not complete Part B of the form identifying any benefits sought, the information in Part A identified the employer, the date of the accident, the location of the accident, and the injuries suffered. It also fairly apprised the commission that a claim was being made on behalf of claimant. Accordingly, claimant's original Claim for Benefits form " contained sufficient information to constitute a claim" for the purposes of Code § 65.2-601. Colgan, 36 Va.App. at 506, 553 S.E.2d at 151.[5]

Nevertheless, appellant argues that affirming the commission will " emasculate the relevant statute of limitation period" established by the General Assembly. Appellant compares the filing of a Workers' Compensation claim with the commission to filing a complaint in a personal injury action, arguing that claimant's failure to state any benefits sought in the claim should result in a ruling that claimant has failed to state a " claim." This argument, however, does not take into account that " the [commission] is not bound by technical rules of pleading or practice." Colgan, 36 Va.App. at 504, 553 S.E.2d at 150 (citing Redmond, 12 Va.App. at 614, 405 S.E.2d at 634). Further, appellant's argument fails to give the appropriate deference to the commission's interpretation of the word [63 Va.App. 227] " claim," as it is used in the Act, through Commission Rule 1.1. Accordingly, appellant's argument fails.[6]

III. CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, this Court holds that the record contains sufficient evidence to support the commission's ruling that claimant's original Claim for Benefits form constituted a claim for the purposes of Code § 65.2-601. Thus, this Court affirms the ruling of the commission.

Affirmed.


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