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Walter v. PCP International, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

September 25, 2019

JAMES WALTER Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
PCP INTERNATIONAL, INC., AND AMTRUST NORTH AMERICA Defendants-Appellees

          Appealed from the Office of Workers' Compensation, District 1-E Parish of Ouachita, Louisiana Trial Court No. 18-03410 Brenza Irving Jones Workers' Compensation Judge.

          STREET & STREET By: C. Daniel Street Counsel for Appellant

          TAYLOR, WELLONS, POLITZ, & DUHE, APLC By: B. Scott Cowart Heidel A. Schneider Counsel for Appellees

          Before MOORE, STEPHENS, and THOMPSON, JJ.

          STEPHENS, J.

         Plaintiff, James Walter, appeals from a judgment by the workers' compensation judge, denying his motion to enforce a judgment against defendants, PCP International, Inc., and its insurer, Amtrust North America. For the following reasons, we vacate the judgment of the workers' compensation judge and remand the matter for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This workers' compensation lawsuit stems from the injury of James Walter sustained on February 18, 2016, while working at PCP International, Inc. ("PCP"), in West Monroe, Louisiana. Walter was paid workers' compensation indemnity and medical benefits until May 8, 2018, when the payments were terminated by PCP due to Walter's failure to attend a medical appointment. In response to the termination of benefits, Walter filed a disputed claim for compensation and a motion to lift the suspension of benefits, seeking indemnity to be reinstated. Following a hearing, the workers' compensation judge ("WCJ") granted Walter's motion and reinstated benefits retroactive to the date of termination, and awarded Walter a penalty in the amount of $1, 000 and $1, 500 in attorney fees. Judgment to that effect was signed on August 8 (the "August Judgment"), and notice of signing of interlocutory judgment was subsequently issued by the Office of Workers' Compensation.

         On September 28, the parties participated in a mediation to address the only remaining issue in the case at that time-determination of Walter's average weekly wage. The mediation resulted in a written agreement ("the Agreement") signed by Walter, his counsel, and counsel for PCP and its insurer, Amtrust North America ("Amtrust"). In the Agreement, Walter's average weekly wage was set and PCP agreed to pay the previously ordered indemnity benefits, penalty, and attorney fees, as well as interest. The Agreement further provided the parties would file a motion to dismiss Walter's disputed claim for compensation upon receipt of the payment of the prior judgment. However, PCP failed to reinstate benefits or pay the amount awarded in the August Judgment.

         Walter subsequently filed a motion for enforcement of judgment seeking to have PCP pay the previous judgment along with the additional 24% penalty and attorney fees that workers' compensation law provides when final judgments are not paid within 30 days of becoming due. A hearing on Walter's motion was held, after which the WCJ denied the motion, finding the August Judgment was interlocutory and neither it nor the Agreement was a final nonappealable judgment. Judgment denying Walter's motion for enforcement of judgment was signed on December 27 (the "December Judgment"). On that same date, the WCJ executed an additional written judgment that reflected the terms of both the August Judgment and the Agreement. This judgment was thereafter deemed a final judgment per notice of signing of final judgment issued by the Office of Workers' Compensation. The back-due benefits owed to Walter have since been paid, and benefits have been reinstated. However, Walter seeks the additional 24% penalty and attorney fees and has timely appealed the WCJ's December Judgment denying his motion for enforcement of judgment.

         DISCUSSION

         On appeal Walter asserts in a single, multipart assignment of error that the WCJ erred: (1) in ruling the August Judgment was interlocutory; (2) in ruling the mediation agreement does not constitute a judgment within the meaning of La. R.S. 23:1201(G); and, (3) in refusing to award the statutory penalty of 24% of the amount of the judgment plus attorney fees for PCP's failure to pay.

         Legal Principles

         Awards of penalties and attorney fees in workers' compensation cases are essentially penal in nature and are imposed to deter indifference and undesirable conduct by employers and their insurers toward injured workers. While the benefits conferred by the Workers' Compensation Act are to be liberally construed, penal statutes are to be strictly construed. Louisiana R.S. 23:1201(G) is a penal ...


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