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IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MONTANA
2001 MT 284
RANDAL L. OLSON and PAMELA A. OLSON, d/b/a BRIMSTONE CREEK RANCH,
Plaintiffs and Respondents,
Defendant and Appellant.
APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Nineteenth Judicial District,
In and for the County of Lincoln,
Honorable Michael C. Prezeau, Judge Presiding
COUNSEL OF RECORD:
William A. Douglas, Douglas Law Firm, P.C., Libby, Montana
Robert T. Bell, Reep. Spoon & Gordon, P.C., Missoula, Montana
Submitted on Briefs: August 9, 2001
Decided: December 20, 2001
Justice W. William Leaphart delivered the Opinion of the Court.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
4. ¶The District Court held that under the doctrine of res judicata and our decision in Neustrom, 283 Mont. at 186, 939 P.2d at 994, Daughenbaugh was not entitled to receive the benefits he would have received from the Olsons in an independent action pursuant to § 39-71-515, MCA, since he had, admittedly, already received these benefits from the UEF. The court stated, "Daughenbaugh is not now entitled to go back to a different forum to recover the same benefits he already received when the Workers' Compensation Court approved his settlement with the UEF. . . . It is not the intent of the law to punish a noncomplying employer by requiring the employer to twice pay benefits and attorney fees for the same injury."
5. ¶On appeal, Daughenbaugh argues that this is precisely the intent of the law. Pursuant to the plain language of § 39-71-515, MCA, and Thayer v. Uninsured Employers' Fund, 1999 MT 304, 297 Mont. 179, 991 P.2d 447, Daughenbaugh claims that he may pursue an independent action against the Olsons regardless of the fact that the UEF paid him his full entitlement to workers' compensation benefits. Daughenbaugh contends that there is nothing in a fair reading of § 39-71-515, MCA, which bars pursuit of an independent cause of action if the injured employee has already received benefits from the UEF. Furthermore, Daughenbaugh insists that the action provided for in § 39-71-515, MCA, is a "powerful and new" cause of action independent of any other statutory scheme under the Workers' Compensation Act.
6. ¶The Olsons, on the other hand, contend that the District Court's conclusion of law on this issue is correct. They maintain that Daughenbaugh already received his full entitlement to workers' compensation benefits from the UEF, and that the Olsons agreed to repay the UEF for these sums, pay a penalty fee, and pay $5000 for Daughenbaugh's attorney's fees. The Olsons assert that they have "paid their penance." In addition, they dispute Daughenbaugh's claim that § 39-71-515, MCA, is independent from other workers' compensation statutes, and the Olsons argue that according to the legislative history of § 39-71-515, MCA, and our decisions in Thayer and Neustrom, Daughenbaugh is not entitled to "double dip" workers' compensation benefits.
7. ¶We agree. Daughenbaugh seeks full compensation for his work-related injury twice- once from the UEF and again from the Olsons. We hold that § 39-71-515, MCA, does not allow for a double recovery of workers' compensation benefits.
8. ¶At the outset, we address Daughenbaugh's contention that § 39-71-515, MCA, is a "powerful and new" cause of action independent of any other statutory scheme. This is simply not the case. Rather, § 39-71-515, MCA, is part of the Workers' Compensation Act under § 39-71-101, MCA. It represents one component of a comprehensive workers' compensation scheme which provides a quid pro quo for employers who enroll in a workers' compensation plan and imposes significant and specific penalties upon employers who do not. See Buerkley v. Aspen Meadows Ltd. Partnership, 1999 MT 97, ¶ 16, 294 Mont. 263, ¶ 16, 980 P.2d 1046, ¶ 16; §§ 39-71-504, -507 and -509, MCA (providing penalties for uninsured employers). Where there are several statutory provisions or particulars, the Court construes them, if possible, to give effect to all. Section 1-2-101, MCA. Accordingly, we construe § 39-71-515, MCA, in conjunction with other relevant workers' compensation provisions.
9. ¶Having said that, Montana employees, under the Workers' Compensation Act, have several options for recovery when they are injured at work and their employer is uninsured. Section 39-71-508, MCA, coordinates these remedies. It states that an injured worker may pursue all remedies concurrently, including but not limited to: (1) a claim for benefits from the uninsured employers' fund; (2) a damage action against the employer in accordance with § 39-71-509, MCA; (3) an independent action against an employer as provided in § 39-71-515, MCA; or (4) any other civil remedy provided by law. Section 39-71-508, MCA. The plain language of this section indicates an injured employee may pursue these remedies concurrently-not duplicatively, as Daughenbaugh suggests. Indeed, Daughenbaugh's rationale would lead to the absurd result that an injured employee could be compensated four or more times for his injury. This Court has previously held that when construing statutes, the interpretation should be reasonable to avoid absurd results. Doting v. Trunk (1993), 259 Mont. 343, 351, 856 P.2d 536, 541. 1
10. ¶Furthermore, despite Daughenbaugh's assertions to the contrary, there is no indication that the legislature intended to provide for a "double recovery" when permitting an injured employee to concurrently seek benefits from the UEF and the uninsured employer. On February 11, 1985, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on House Bill No. 529 regarding proposed statutory amendments drafted to address the compensation problem that injured employees of uninsured employers faced due to the UEF's insolvency. A proponent of House Bill No. 529 stated that the intent behind permitting concurrent actions in § 39-71-508, MCA, was to "take away incentive from employers not to cover and provide an injured person three ways to try to get compensated for their injuries with the understanding that he is only going to be compensated one time." See testimony of Karl Englund, minutes of hearing on HB 529, House Judiciary Committee, February 11, 1985, p. 5 (emphasis added).
11. ¶Our previous decisions mirror this rationale. In Thayer v. Uninsured Employers' Fund, a workers' compensation claimant received a $100,000 settlement from her husband's uninsured employer. Thayer, ¶ 9. Subsequently, the UEF discontinued payment of her death benefits under § 39-71-511, MCA, a setoff provision requiring a claimant to discharge her remaining claims against the UEF if she receives such a settlement. Thayer, ¶ 10. We held that the claimant was not entitled to recover from both the UEF and the uninsured employer because the Uninsured Employers' Fund is merely a safety net which stands in the place of the uninsured employer, and the setoff provisions are uniquely necessary to assure some payment to as many uninsured employees as possible. Thayer, ¶¶ 22, 24. Consequently, a double recovery was not permitted.
12. ¶Daughenbaugh, however, encourages the Court to focus its attention on the timing of events in Thayer rather than the general proposition that a double recovery is forbidden. He claims that here, unlike in Thayer, the UEF paid all the benefits to which he was entitled before he sought a settlement from the Olsons, and, as such, a double recovery in this case is just. However, our decision in Neustrom, which Daughenbaugh fails to address, explains that regardless of the timing of events, a double recovery is not permitted.
13. ¶In Neustrom, an injured employee filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits alleging that he was Neustrom's employee at the time he was injured. Neustrom, 283 Mont. at 181, 939 P.2d at 991. He also filed a § 39-71-515, MCA, independent action against Neustrom. Neustrom, 283 Mont. at 181, 939 P.2d at 991. Following the UEF's determination that the alleged employee was in fact Neustrom's employee, Neustrom petitioned the District Court to vacate this finding. Neustrom, 283 Mont. at 181-82, 939 P.2d at 991-92. We held that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to vacate the decision of the UEF. We concluded that, under Montana's Workers' Compensation Act, the employee's independent action and claim for unemployment benefits proceeded along two separate and exclusive tracks: the independent action in the district court and the unemployment benefits action in the Workers' Compensation Court. Neustrom, 283 Mont. at 186, 939 P.2d at 994. Furthermore, we stated:
Neustrom, 283 Mont. at 186, 939 P.2d at 994.
14. ¶ The doctrine of res judicata is grounded on the principle that litigation must at some point come to an end. It bars the relitigation of an entire cause of action once a final judgment has been entered. Res judicata applies if: (1) the parties or their privies are the same; (2) the subject matter of the action is the same; (3) the issues are the same and relate to the same subject matter; and (4) the capacities of the persons are the same in reference to the subject matter and to the issues. Holtman v. 4-G's Plumbing & Heating, Inc. (1994), 264 Mont. 432, 436, 872 P.2d 318, 320.
15. ¶Here, under §§ 39-71-508 and -515, MCA, Neustrom and the doctrine of res judicata, Daughenbaugh could pursue a claim for benefits from the UEF and an independent action against the Olsons at the same time. However, Daughenbaugh was bound by the decision of the first venue to arrive at a decision-here, the UEF's decision to pay Daughenbaugh the full the amount of compensation that he would have received had the Olsons been properly insured.
16. ¶Accordingly, we hold that the District Court correctly concluded that § 39-71-515, MCA, does not permit an injured employee of an uninsured employer to collect from the employer the amount of compensation the employee would have received had the employer been properly insured if the employee has admittedly received all of the workers' compensation benefits to which he is entitled from the State of Montana Uninsured Employers' Fund. We affirm the District Court's grant of summary judgment to the Olsons.
/S/ W. WILLIAM LEAPHART
/S/ KARLA M. GRAY
/S/ PATRICIA COTTER
/S/ TERRY N. TRIEWEILER
/S/ JIM RICE
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