Lorrain v. Lorrain Carpets
Lorrain v. Lorrain Carpets (95-610); 167 Vt. 574; 705 A.2d 536
SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 95-610
APRIL TERM, 1997
Derek Lorrain } APPEALED FROM:
v. } Chittenden Superior Court
Lorrain Carpets, Atlantic Mutual }
Insurance Company, Peerless } DOCKET NO. S1127-95CnC , B-17679,
Insurance Company and Aetna Life } Z-448, X-19106 & 84-
and Casualty Company } 16207
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
Claimant Derek Lorrain was denied workers' compensation for a back
condition that resulted in a diskectomy and spinal fusion surgery in 1991.
Claimant alleged that the back condition resulted from a 1985 accident that
occurred while he was working for Derek Lorrain Carpet Installers, Inc., a
business he owned and operated. The Commissioner of Labor and Industry
concluded that claimant was collaterally estopped from claiming causation
between the 1985 accident and the 1991 condition because of the jury
verdict in a tort suit he brought against the owners of the home where the
carpet was installed and where the 1985 accident occurred. Claimant first
appealed to the Chittenden Superior Court which dismissed his claim for
lack of jurisdiction. Claimant then appealed to this Court. We conclude
that we can reach the merits of this appeal and affirm the decision of the
The workers' compensation carrier at the time of the accident was
Aetna Life and Casualty Company. In response to the claim, Aetna moved for
summary judgment based on the jury verdict in the tort suit. In August
1995, the commissioner granted summary judgment to Aetna based on defensive
collateral estoppel. Claimant appealed the commissioner's decision to
Chittenden Superior Court pursuant to 21 V.S.A. § 670. On November 7,
1995, the superior court granted Aetna's motion to dismiss on the ground
that the appeal raised a pure question of law for which the superior court
lacked subject matter jurisdiction. On November 28, 1995, claimant
appealed to this Court from both the August decision of the Commissioner
and the November decision of the superior court. Aetna argues that the
appeal from the commissioner is untimely and that the jurisdictional
decision of the superior court should be affirmed.
We agree with Aetna that the applicability of collateral estoppel to a
given set of facts is a question of law. See, e.g., Emich Motors Corp. v.
General Motors Corp., 340 U.S. 558, 571 (1951); Rapoport v. Tesoro Alaska
Petroleum Co., 794 P.2d 949, 951 (Alaska 1990). Because the superior
court's jurisdiction extends only to "questions of fact or questions of
fact and law," 21 V.S.A. § 671, that court has no jurisdiction over
questions that are purely legal.
See Pitts v. Howe Scale Co., 110 Vt. 27, 35, 1 A.2d 695, 698 (1938). We
therefore affirm the superior court's dismissal of the appeal for lack of
subject matter jurisdiction.
Aetna contends that claimant's appeal of the commissioner's August 3
decision was not timely filed in this Court. See V.R.A.P. 4 (appeal must
be filed within thirty days of entry of judgment appealed from). In
workers' compensation cases, however, we may grant leave to enter an
untimely appeal where the appellant "has been prevented by fraud, accident
or mistake from taking or entering an appeal within the time allowed by
law." 21 V.S.A. § 673. Because of the lack of prejudice to Aetna, and the
technical reason for the untimely filing, we exercise our discretion under
the statute to allow the appeal.
The merits of this appeal depend upon the effect of the jury verdict
in Lorrain v. Ryan, the tort suit against the homeowner. Although claimant
prevailed in that case, he appealed to this Court arguing that the damage
award was inadequate and the court erroneously charged the jury on damages.
See Lorrain v. Ryan, 160 Vt. 202, 628 A.2d 543 (1993). We upheld the
award, relying in part on our understanding of what the jury decided:
Defendant's expert testified that the accident resulted in only a
temporary increase in plaintiff's symptoms, and that plaintiff's
continuing physical problems were due solely to the degenerative
[arthritis] condition, which he described as permanent and likely
to worsen over time. . . . The jury award covered all of the
medical expenses incurred during the July 1985 to August 1986
period, and none thereafter. Thus, the jury apparently concluded
that 100 percent of plaintiff's damages incurred in the thirteen-
month period were attributable to the accident and all damages
incurred after August 1986 were attributable to the preexisting
condition or later accidents.
Plaintiff was awarded damages for medical expenses, pain
and suffering, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of daily
activities, and lost earnings to August 1986. The jury awarded
plaintiff no damages whatsoever for future lost earning capacity,
future pain and suffering, or future general disability. It is clear
that the jury concluded that the disability plaintiff suffered as a
result of defendants' negligence was merely temporary, and did not
create or substantially contribute to the continuing medical
problems plaintiff experienced.
Id. at 207-08, 628 A.2d at 547. From this analysis, the commissioner
concluded that the jury had decided there was no causal connection between
the 1985 accident and the 1991 surgery, and she relied on collateral
estoppel to prohibit relitigation of that issue.
Collateral estoppel applies with respect to an issue when:
(1) preclusion is asserted against one who was a party or in privity
with a party in the earlier action; (2) the issue was resolved by a final
judgment on the merits; (3) the issue is the same as the one raised in the
later action; (4) there was a full and fair opportunity to litigate the
issue in the earlier action; and (5) applying preclusion in the later
action is fair.
Trepanier v. Getting Organized, Inc., 155 Vt. 259, 265, 583 A.2d 583, 587
(1990). Claimant contends that collateral estoppel does not apply
primarily because the liability and causation standards for a workers'
compensation claim are different from those for a negligence claim.
Specifically, he argues that the workers' compensation issue is whether the
accident "aggravated" the preexisting condition or "accelerated [it such
that it] . . . `came upon the claimant earlier than otherwise would have
occurred,'" City of Burlington v. Davis, 160 Vt. 183, 184, 624 A.2d 872,
873 (1993) (quoting Jackson v. True Temper Corp., 151 Vt. 592, 595-96, 563
A.2d 621, 623 (1989)), and that the negligence causation standard is
The issue in the workers' compensation case is whether the 1985
accident "aggravated, accelerated, or combined with a preexisting
impairment or injury to produce a disability greater than would have
resulted from" the 1985 accident alone. Pacher v. Fairdale Farms, 8 Vt.
L.W. 173, 173 (June 2, 1997) (mem.). If the claimant reaches a preaccident
condition, then the determinative causation returns to the preexisting
impairment or condition. See id. at 174. We concluded in Lorraine v. Ryan
that the jury found that "the disability plaintiff suffered as a result of
[the 1985 accident] . . . was merely temporary, and did not create or
substantially contribute to the continuing medical problems plaintiff
experienced." 160 Vt. at 208, 628 A.2d at 547. Although there are slight
differences between the wording of the workers' compensation standard and
our phrasing in Lorrain, we conclude that the causation issue claimant
raises in this case was resolved against him in Lorrain.
BY THE COURT:
Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Chief Justice
Ernest W. Gibson III, Associate Justice
John A. Dooley, Associate Justice
James L. Morse, Associate Justice
Denise R. Johnson, Associate Justice
FN1. Claimant also made claims for two other injuries, each involving
a different workers' compensation carrier. Both of these carriers were
originally involved in this appeal, one by way of cross-appeal, but these
claims have now been settled and are no longer before us.