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Arrant v. Graphic Packaging Int'l, Inc.

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 5, 2015

JAMES CLIFFORD ARRANT, ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL. CONSOLIDATED WITH MARVIN JACK BARNETT, JR., ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL. CONSOLIDATED WITH KENNETH NOEL BAIN, SR., ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL. CONSOLIDATED WITH GEORGE EMORY BUTLER, ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL. CONSOLIDATED WITH W. H. AUTTONBERRY, ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL. CONSOLIDATED WITH JIMMIE DEWAYNE BAUGH, ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL. CONSOLIDATED WITH MELVIN ELLIS BORDELON, ET AL.
v.
GRAPHIC PACKAGING INTERNATIONAL, INC., ET AL

Page 297

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, SECOND CIRCUIT, PARISH OF OUACHITA.

For Applicant (No. 2013-C-2878): Kelly Nichols Reddell, BARON & BUDD, PC; J. N. Dimos, DIMOS ERSKINE, LLP; Cammie deShea Stelly, Paul Eric Harrison, LAW OFFICES OF PAUL E HARRISON, LLC; Carlos Alberto Zelaya, II, John Wayne Mumphrey, THE MUMPHREY LAW FIRM, LLC; Bruce William Steckler, THE STECKLER LAW FIRM.

For Respondent (No. 2013-C-2878): Carol Galloway, Joseph Benjamin Morton III, FORMAN PERRY WATKINS KRUTZ & TARDY, LLP; Gary A. Bezet, Allison Naquin Benoit, Claire Elizabeth Juneau, KEAN MILLER, LLP; Leigh Ann Schell, KUCHLER POLK SCHELL WEINER & RICHESON, LLC; Glenn Lyle Maximilian Swetman, SWETMAN BAXTER MASSENBURG, LLC.

For Amicus Curiae: Harry Alston Johnson, III, Counsel for Georgia-Pacific LLC; Entergy Gulf States Louisiana, L.L.C.; Occidental Chemical Corporation; Ethyl Corporation; Avaya, Inc.; Alcatel-Lucent USA, Inc.; Lucent Technologies Services Company, Inc.; AT& T Technologies, Inc.

For Applicant (No. 2013-C-2981): Maxwell Gantt Kees, Sr., Carol Galloway; Gary A. Bezet, Erich Phillip Rapp, Gregory Michael Anding, Claire Elizabeth Juneau, KEAN MILLER, LLP.

For Respondent No. 2013-C-2981: Kelly Nichols Reddell, BARON & BUDD, PC; J. N. Dimos, DIMOS ERSKINE, LLP; Joseph Benjamin Morton III, FORMAN PERRY WATKINS KRUTZ & TARDY, LLP; Leigh Ann Schell, KUCHLER POLK SCHELL WEINER & RICHESON, LLC; Cammie deShea Stelly Richardson, LAW OFFICES OF PAUL E HARRISON, LLC; Carlos Alberto Zelaya, II, John Wayne Mumphrey, THE MUMPHREY LAW FIRM, LLC; Glenn Lyle Maximilian Swetman, SWETMAN BAXTER MASSENBURG, LLC; Paul Eric Harrison, THE LAW OFFICES OF PAUL E. HARRISON, LLC; Bruce William Steckler, THE STECKLER LAW FIRM.

GUIDRY, Justice. KNOLL, JUSTICE, dissenting. JOHNSON, Chief Justice, dissents for reasons assigned by Knoll, J.

OPINION

Page 298

[2013-2878 La. 1] GUIDRY, Justice[*]

The instant case presents a res nova issue in this court of whether gradual noise induced hearing loss caused by occupational exposure to hazardous noise levels is a personal injury by accident or an occupational disease, or both, under the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Act (hereinafter, " LWCA" ), thereby entitling the defendant employer to immunity from suits in tort under the exclusivity provisions of the LWCA. Interpreting the Act and mindful of the clear legislative purpose behind the workers' compensation scheme -- a principle that has been well-explained in our jurisprudence, we find occupational noise-induced hearing loss (hereinafter, " NIHL" ) falls squarely within the parameters of the LWCA, either the pre-1990 definition of " accident" or the post-1975 definition of " occupational disease." As explained below, we conclude the defendants were entitled to immunity from suits in tort under the LWCA. Accordingly, the court of appeal properly reversed the judgment of the district court and dismissed the plaintiffs' claims. For these reasons, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeal dismissing the plaintiffs' tort suits against the defendants.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs in these consolidated actions are current and former employees of the West Monroe facility, which includes a paper mill, box plant, and carton plant. The facility was owned by defendant Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation from 1955 until 1967, when defendant Graphic Packaging International, Inc. assumed control of the facility and continues to exercise that control to this day. The plaintiffs, who are now elderly and many of whom are retired from working at the [2013-2878 La. 2] facility, claim they have suffered hearing losses, primarily high frequency hearing losses, which they attribute to being exposed to hazardous levels of industrial noise during their employment with the defendant.[1]

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[2013-2878 La. 3] In 2005, 2007, and 2008, the plaintiffs filed various suits against the defendants for hearing losses allegedly sustained as a result of being " occupationally exposed to hazardous levels of industrial noise." Specifically, plaintiffs asserted negligence on the part of the defendants for failing to provide a safe place to work, which in turn caused plaintiffs to suffer hearing loss by gradual, but persistent, noise exposure occurring over a substantial period of time while employed by defendants. The defendants filed, inter alia, exceptions of prescription and a motion for summary judgment asserting immunity from tort under the LWCA. The exceptions and motion were denied, and the matter proceeded to trial as a tort suit.

After a lengthy bench trial, the district court found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded damages. The district court in detailed written reasons found that plaintiffs had established by a preponderance of the evidence that the constant exposure to hazardous levels of industrial noise while employed by the defendants was a substantial and significant cause-in-fact of their hearing losses and any other potential cause paled in comparison. The district court further concluded the plaintiffs had suffered permanent and irreversible loss of hearing in varying degrees affecting every aspect of their lives. The court further stated that, although various devices, including hearing aids, may help in a given situation, they would not replace the loss of natural hearing. Although the district court was aware that each individual plaintiff must be awarded damages according to his particular facts and circumstances, the district court found uniformity of the damage awards was mandated by the evidence. Accordingly, and given the

Page 300

plaintiffs' stipulation to the recovery of no more than $50,000 per claim, the district court awarded $50,000 in [2013-2878 La. 4] damages to each plaintiff, together with legal interest from the date of judicial demand until paid.

The court of appeal reversed the judgment of the district court, having found that noise-induced hearing loss is an " occupational disease" under the LWCA, namely La. Rev. Stat. 23:1031.1, and that defendants were entitled to the tort immunity provided to employers under the Act. Arrant v. Graphic Packaging Int'l, Inc.., 48,197 (La.App. 2 Cir. 9/25/13), 127 So.3d 924. The court of appeal noted that an occupational disease has been defined as the result of a series of events, often imperceptible in nature, which are eventually evidenced in the manifestation of a disability, citing Vargas v. Daniell Battery Mfg. Co., 93-1249 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/20/94), 636 So.2d 1194. The court then found that plaintiffs suffered NIHL which, as shown by the evidence, resulted from the cumulative damage or stress process upon the ear caused by constant exposure to excessively loud noises. Thus, the court found the record evidence sufficient to meet the requirements for finding that gradual hearing loss caused by excessive noise is an " occupational disease" under La. Rev. Stat. 23:1031.1(B). The court reasoned that a causal link between the plaintiffs' hearing loss and their work-related duties had been established by a reasonable probability by the plaintiffs' own testimony and that of their experts. The court further found that NIHL was compensable under the LWCA, rejecting the plaintiffs' contention the LWCA provided no remedy and therefore they were entitled to pursue a remedy in tort. The court reasoned that the compensation to be provided is dependent upon the proof of disability or impairment of function and its relation to the occupational disease. The court explained, " Upon proof of impairment of function, Plaintiffs are entitled to compensation under the LWCA, even if only under La. R.S. 23:1203, which obligates the employer to furnish medical and vocational rehabilitation expenses, [2013-2878 La. 5] prosthetic devices and other expenses." Arrant, p. 15, 127 So.3d at 933. The court of appeal ultimately reversed the judgment of the district court in favor of plaintiffs, finding that plaintiffs' sole remedy was in workers' compensation.

The plaintiffs sought writs, asserting the court of appeal erred in finding that NIHL was a compensable " occupational disease" within the meaning of the LWCA. The defendants also sought writs, asserting inter alia that the court of appeal erred in not finding that NIHL also qualifies as an " accident by personal injury" within the meaning of the LWCA and that the district court erred in overruling the defendants' exceptions of prescription. Because these issues appear to be res nova in this court, and a split amongst the circuit courts arguably exists as to whether NIHL is a covered " accident" and/or " occupational disease" within the meaning of the LWCA, we granted both writ applications. Arrant v. Graphic Packaging Intern., Inc., 13-2878, 13-2981 (La. 4/17/14), 138 So.3d 613, 614.

LAW and DISCUSSION

These consolidated cases require us to determine whether the NIHL is a covered " personal injury by accident" and/or an " occupational disease" within the meaning of the LWCA in its various configurations over the years. Thus, we are called upon to interpret the applicable versions of the Act itself. The guidelines for doing so have been well-established.

The starting point for interpretation of any statute is the language of the statute itself. Rando v. Anco Insulations, Inc., 08-1163 (La. 5/22/09), 16 So.3d 1065;

Page 301

Touchard v. Williams, 617 So.2d 885 (La. 1993). When a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law is applied as written, and no further interpretation may be made in search of legislative intent. La. Civ. Code art. 9. However, when the language of a law is [2013-2878 La. 6] susceptible to different meanings, it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law, and the meaning of ambiguous words must be sought by examining the context in which they occur and the text of the law as a whole. La. Civ. Code art. 10. The latter principle was explained in Fruge v. Muffoletto, 242 La. 569, 137 So.2d 336 (1962):

In construing a statute, the primary object is to ascertain and, if possible, give effect to the intention and purpose of the legislature as expressed in the statute. Since the meaning is to be determined from a general consideration of the act as a whole, all parts, provisions or sections must be read together; each must be considered with respect to, or in the light of, all the other provisions, and construed in harmony with the whole. The intent as deduced from the whole will prevail over that of a particular part considered separately. Meaning should be given, if possible, to each and every section, and the construction placed on one portion should not be such as to obliterate another; so, in determining the meaning of a word, phrase or clause, the entire statute is to be considered.

Fruge, 137 So.2d at 339; see also Rando, supra, pp. 8-9, 16 So.3d at 1075; O'Regan v. Preferred Enterprises, Inc., 98-1602 (La. 3/17/00), 758 So.2d 124. Ultimately, the words of a law must be given their generally prevailing meaning and words of art and technical terms must be given their technical meaning when the law involves a technical matter. La. Civ. Code art. 11.

When courts interpret provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act, the basic history and policy of the compensation movement must be taken into account. Rando, supra, pp. 8-9, 16 So.3d at 1075 (citing Stelly v. Overhead Door Company of Baton Rouge, 94-0569 (La. 12/8/94), 646 So.2d 905; Roberts v. Sewerage & Water Bd. of New Orleans, 92-2048 (La. 3/21/94), 634 So.2d 341, 345). Although we must liberally construe the coverage provisions of the workers' compensation act, we must be mindful to narrowly construe the LWCA's immunity provisions. Id.

[2013-2878 La. 7] Given that we must interpret the provisions of the LWCA in light of the history and policy behind the workers' compensation scheme, we commence our review with a brief overview of the history of workers' compensation law in Louisiana and the purpose behind such legislation. The history of the LWCA was set forth in detail in Rando, pp. 9-14, 16 So.3d at 1076-79. Recognizing that the judicial system for remedying personal injuries for workers via a tort suit posed significant hurdles for the injured employee, the legislature passed the Burke-Roberts Employers' Liability Act in 1914. La. Acts 1914, No. 20; see generally H. Alston Johnson, Louisiana Workers' Compensation Law and Practice, 13 La. Civ. Law Treatise, pp. 6-35 (5th ed. 2010) (hereinafter, " Malone & Johnson" ). Since 1914, Louisiana has provided workers' compensation coverage for " personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of [the worker's] employment...." La. Acts 1914, No. 20; see La. Rev. Stat. 23:1031(A).[2] This

Page 302

compensation scheme, which continues to this day, represents the legislature's attempt to achieve a compromise regarding the rights and responsibilities of injured workers and their employers. The 1914 Act provided that employees injured in the course and scope of their employment could pursue legislatively-defined compensation benefits without having to prove fault on the part of the employer, and necessarily forego their right to full redress for personal injuries under Article 2315 of the Civil Code. The employer, in exchange for accepting the responsibility to pay such benefits regardless of fault, was guaranteed immunity from suits for tort damages arising out of the employment relationship, save for [2013-2878 La. 8] intentional torts. Sometimes referred to as a " quid pro quo," this initial core compromise has evolved over the years and has been modified by the legislature, which has the prerogative to define the conditions and limitations under which workers can recover compensation benefits. O'Regan v. Preferred Enterprises, Inc., 98-1602 (La. 6/29/99), 737 So.2d 31, 34.

In 1918, La. Rev. Stat. 23:1021 was amended to define the terms " accident" and " personal injury" :

(1) " Accident" means an unexpected or unforeseen event happening suddenly or violently, with or without human fault and producing at the time objective symptoms of an injury. ...
(7) " Injury" and " Personal Injuries" includes only injuries by violence to the physical structure of the body and such disease or infections as naturally result therefrom. These terms shall in no case be construed to include any other form of disease or derangement, howsoever caused or contracted.

Recognizing the realities of the modern workplace, a liberal interpretation evolved regarding what constitutes an " accident" under the LWCA. For example, the jurisprudence has established that physical breakdowns caused by repeated exposures to conditions at work are " accidents" within the purview of the LWCA. This court addressed these cases and the proper interpretation of the LWCA's accident provisions in Rando v. Anco Insulations Inc., p. 11, 16 So.3d at 1077:

While the purpose of the 1914 statute may have initially been to cover only work-related " accidents," with the advancement of the industrial revolution and growing number and types of diseases arising from work-related activities, a liberal interpretation was given to the statute which " effectuated its beneficent purpose of relieving workmen of the economic burden of work-connected injuries by diffusing the costs in channels of commerce." Parks v. Insurance Co. of North America, 340 So.2d 276, 281 (La. 1976). Accordingly, this Court recognized judicial interpretation of that statute often resulted in occupational illnesses and diseases being classified as " accidents" under the Act. Id.

[2013-2878 La. 9] In 1952, the legislature established express statutory authority for the coverage of occupational diseases under Louisiana's workers' compensation law. 1952 La. Acts No. 532. Rejecting blanket coverage for all occupational diseases, the legislature chose a schedule approach, providing compensation for " contraction of an occupational disease," as defined, as the exclusive remedy of the employee or his dependent.

Page 303

The statute explicitly provided coverage for two categories of " occupational disease." La. Rev. Stat. 23:1031.1 (1952). One category included specifically listed diseases, namely diseased conditions caused by exposure to X rays or radioactive substances, asbestosis, silicosis, dermatosis, and pneumoconiosis, while the other category identified diseases by causative agents. Rando, p. 12, 16 So.3d at 1078. The defendants do not argue that NIHL is an occupational disease within the meaning of the 1952 version of La. Rev. Stat. 23:1031.1 (1952).

In 1975, it became apparent that a considerable number of employment-related diseases did not comfortably fit into the categories set forth in the 1952 amendment. Rando, pp. 13-14, 16 So.3d at 1078-79. The legislature revised La. Rev. Stat. § 23:1031.1(A) (1976) to amend the definition of occupational disease by removing the list of specific diseases for which there was coverage under workers' compensation and substituting the following: " [a]n occupational disease shall mean only that disease or illness which is due to causes and conditions characteristic of and peculiar to the particular trade, occupation, process, or employment in which the employee is exposed to such disease." 1975 La. Acts No. 583. We have recognized that the legislature, by amending the LWCA in 1975, intended to abandon the limited schedule approach to occupational diseases set forth in 1952, and to embrace a broader and more expansive definition of " occupational disease." See Rando, p. 16, 16 So.3d at 1080; see also O'Regan v. [2013-2878 La. 10] Preferred Enterprises, Inc., 98-1602 (La. 3/17/00), 758 So.2d 124. Originally, La. Rev. Stat. 23:1031.1 provided as follows:

A. Every employee who is disabled because of the contraction of an occupational disease as herein defined, or the dependent of an employee whose death is caused by an occupational disease, as herein defined, shall be entitled to the compensation provided in this Chapter the same as if said employee received personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.
B. An occupational disease shall mean only that disease or illness which is due to causes and conditions characteristic of and peculiar to the particular trade, occupation, process, or employment in which the employee is exposed to such disease.

In 1989, the legislature again amended the definition of " occupational disease" to exclude certain conditions:

B. An occupational disease means only that disease or illness which is due to causes and conditions characteristic of and peculiar to the particular trade, occupation, process, or employment in which the employee is exposed to such disease. Degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, arthritis of any type, mental illness, and heart-related or perivascular disease are specifically excluded from the classification of an occupational disease for the purposes of this Section.

Acts 1989, No. 454, § 2, eff. Jan. 1, 1990 (emphasis supplied).

But in 1990, the legislature clarified that " carpal tunnel syndrome" is an occupational disease. La. Acts 1990, No. 943, § 2. Such that the definition of occupational disease currently reads as follows:

A. Every employee who is disabled because of the contraction of an occupational disease as herein defined, or the dependent of an employee whose death is caused by an occupational disease, as herein defined, shall be entitled to the compensation provided in this Chapter the same as if said employee received ...

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