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Worker’s Comp compromise bars tort claim

Last summer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that a Court of Appeals opinion loses all precedential value when it is overruled by the Supreme Court, abrogating the long-standing rule that holdings not specifically reversed on appeal retain precedential value.

If an April 21 opinion from the Court of Appeals is any indication, that holding may change how courts analyze cases, but not the results.

The circuit court and Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion in the case, although the Court of Appeals explicitly disavowed any reliance on overruled cases that figured heavily in the circuit court’s decision.

The case involved the exclusive remedy provision of the Worker’s Compensation Act, sec. 102.03(2).

Adam Martine, an employee of United Cooperative, was injured at work during horseplay with a co-employee, Quentin Williams. Martine entered into a compromise agreement with United Cooperative, providing that the settlement was a full and final compromise.

After the settlement, Martine brought suit against Williams, alleging negligence. Relying on Marson v. LIRC, 178 Wis.2d 118, 503 N.W.2d 582 (Ct.App.1993), the circuit court held that the Act was the exclusive remedy, and dismissed the case, even though Marson had been overruled by the Supreme Court on other grounds in Byers v. LIRC, 208 Wis.2d 388, 561 N.W.2d 678 (1997).

Martine appealed, and while the case was pending, the Supreme Court decided Blum v. 1st Auto & Cas. Ins. Co., 2010 WI 78, 326 Wis.2d 822, 762 N.W.2d 819 — creating the rule that an overruled court of appeals opinion loses all precedential value.

The Court of Appeals nevertheless affirmed, but without reliance on Marson.

Noting the circuit court’s reliance on Marson, the Court of Appeals added, “The court might also have relied on Finnell v. DILHR, 186 Wis. 2d 187, 519 N.W.2d 731 (Ct. App. 1994), Schachtner v. DILHR, 144 Wis. 2d 1, 422 N.W.2d 906 (Ct. App 1988), and Norris v. DILHR, 155 Wis. 2d 337, 455 N.W.2d 665 (Ct. App. 1990). In all four cases this court held that the Act was the exclusive remedy for an injury which was the subject of a worker’s compensation claim compromise agreement.”

Marson, Schachtner and Norris each involved claims under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. Finnell involved a claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In each case, the Court of Appeals made two holdings: (1) that the Act’s exclusivity provision prevents an employee from seeking relief for a work-related injury in an alternative forum; and (2) that the general rule applies to the anti-discrimination laws at issue.

In Byers, the Supreme Court overruled or disavowed the second holding, without addressing the first. Byers, 561 N.W.2d at 678, n.13.

Following the directive in Blum, the Court of Appeals held that these opinions could no longer be cited in support of the first holding either.

But the result was the same.

Turning to the merits, and relying solely on the statutory language and older precedents that did not involve anti-discrimination laws, the Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion it did in the four overruled cases – the compromise agreement precludes the claim.

What the Court Held

Case: Martine v. Williams, No. 2010AP1426

Issue: Does a compromise agreement under the Worker’s Compensation Act bar a subsequent claim against a co-employee in tort?

Holding: Yes. The exclusive remedy provision in the Act bars recovery for the same injuries in a different forum.

Attorneys: For Plaintiffs: James A. Carney, Janesville; For Defendants: Nathan Bayer, Milwaukee.

David Ziemer can be reached at david.ziemer@wislawjournal.com.

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