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Wislocki v. Town of Prospect

CASE NO. 4226 CRB-5-00-4

COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION

JULY 5, 2001

RONALD WISLOCKI

CLAIMANT-APPELLANT

v.

TOWN OF PROSPECT

EMPLOYER

RESPONDENT-APPELLEE

and

SECOND INJURY FUND

RESPONDENT-APPELLEE

APPEARANCES:

The claimant was represented by Edward T. Dodd, Jr., Esq., Dodd, Lessack, Ranando & Dalton, L.L.C., Westgate Office Center, 700 West Johnson Avenue, Suite 305, Cheshire, CT 06410.

The respondent was not represented at oral argument. Notice sent to William M. O’Donnell III, Esq., Carmody & Torrance, 50 Leavenworth Street, P.O. Box 1110, Waterbury, CT 06721-1110.

The Second Injury Fund was represented by Taka Iwashita, Esq., and Michael J. Belzer, Esq., Assistant Attorneys General, 55 Elm Street, P. O. Box 120, Hartford, CT 06141-0120.

This Petition for Review from the April 14, 2000 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Fifth District was heard March 30, 2001 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of the Commission Chairman John A. Mastropietro and Commissioners George A. Waldron and Ernie R. Walker.

OPINION

JOHN A. MASTROPIETRO, CHAIRMAN. The claimant, Joy Wislocki, has petitioned for review from the April 14, 2000 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Fifth District. She contends on appeal that, as the surviving spouse of the decedent Ronald Wislocki, she was improperly denied benefits by the trier on the ground that she was not married to the decedent at the time he sustained his compensable heart injury. We agree with the trial commissioner’s interpretation of the law, and affirm his decision.

The parties stipulated that the decedent suffered a compensable heart injury on September 29, 1988. At that time, he was unmarried, and had not yet met the claimant, who was then called Joy Caruso. The two later became acquainted, and were married on September 22, 1990. As of January 18, 1999, the date of the decedent’s death, he was receiving $457 per week in total disability benefits, and $1,100 per month in Social Security Disability benefits. His wife was still living with him in the same household, and was partially financially dependent upon him, as she was earning $397.25 per week. When he died, she sought benefits pursuant to the Workers’ Compensation Act. The trier found, however, that she did not qualify as either a presumptive dependent, dependent or a dependent in fact under § 31-306 C.G.S. due to her lack of a relationship with the decedent on the date of his 1988 injury. He therefore denied her claim for surviving spouse benefits. The claimant has appealed that decision to this board.

At the time of the decedent’s injury, § 31-306(b)(2) required that compensation be paid on account of death resulting from an accident arising out of and in the course of employment to individuals who were “wholly dependent upon the deceased employee at the time of his injury.” (Emphasis added.) Among those conclusively presumed to be wholly dependent (“presumptive dependents”) as per § 31-306(a) are “a wife upon a husband with whom she lives at the time of his injury or from whom she receives support regularly.” A corresponding provision exists for husbands dependent upon wives. Where there are no presumptive dependents, “questions of dependency shall be determined in accordance with the fact, as the fact may be at the time of the injury.” (Emphasis added.) These dependents in fact would be entitled to compensation divided according to their relative degree of dependence. Section 31-306(b)(6).

The claimant contends that the definition of “presumptive dependents” includes two categories of surviving spouses: those who live with the injured employee at the time of injury, and those who receive support regularly from the injured employee. According to the claimant, the latter category “does not require dependency or marriage at the time of the injury, but only the receipt of support regularly at the time of the worker’s death.” Brief, pp. 7-8. The claimant contrasts this with the status of dependent children as presumptive dependents in § 31-306(a)(3), which includes “any child under the age of eighteen years, or over said age but physically or mentally incapacitated from earning, upon the parent with whom he is living or from whom he is receiving support regularly, at the time of the injury of such parent.” Under the claimant’s reading of the statute, the legislature clearly intended to restrict dependent’s benefits to children who were receiving support at the time of the injury, while allowing a spouse to collect such benefits as long as he or she was receiving support at the time of death. We find this reading implausible.

As a general matter, the humanitarian and remedial purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act counsel against an overly narrow construction of its provisions that would unduly limit eligibility for workers’ compensation. Herman v. Sherwood Industries, Inc., 244 Conn. 502, 510 (1998). Nevertheless, we cannot invoke this principle in order to justify a reading of the statute that would lead to absurd results or thwart the intended purpose of the legislature. Hall v. Gilbert & Bennett Mfg. Co., 241 Conn. 282, 302 (1997). It is very evident from § 31-306(b)(2) that the only individuals entitled to collect benefits under the statute are individuals who were “wholly dependent upon the deceased employee at the time of his injury.” Presumptive dependents and dependents in fact are classifications of such “wholly dependent individuals.” See § 31-306(a). The wording of the statute can only be called ambiguous if one attempts to read each line in a vacuum. That is not how we go about interpreting a statute, or the intent behind its passage. Coley v. Camden Associates, Inc., 243 Conn. 311, 319 (1997).

Indeed, by adopting the claimant’s interpretation of § 31-306, we would not only be drawing arbitrary lines between spouses who live together and spouses who simply receive support. As the statute contains no “date of injury” restriction for unmarried children between the ages of 18 and 22 who are full-time students, we would have to distinguish them from children under the age of 18 and children who are unable to earn wages due to a physical or mental incapacity. As such, a child born several years after a claimant’s injury would be entitled to nothing as a dependent if the claimant later died due to the injury. However, if that same child were to reach the age of 18 and enroll in school full-time while still receiving support from the injured employee, he would qualify for benefits should the employee then happen to die from the effects of the work-related injury. We do not believe the legislature intended to draw either of these distinctions.

Finally, one of the more basic rules of construction in the workers’ compensation arena is the “date of injury” rule. Most statutes that affect substantive rights are applied prospectively, and the law in effect on the date of a claimant’s injury is normally the law that applies to his or her case, including the obligations of his employer to his dependents. Id.; Iacomacci v. Trumbull, 209 Conn. 219, 222 (1988). In that light, it is not surprising that the legislature chose to fix the obligations of an employer to a claimant’s dependents based on their dependency status as of the date of his injury. This would enable an employer to quantify its potential liability without having to anticipate subsequent additions to a claimant’s family, similar to the manner in which an employer is entitled to assess its liability based on the statutes in existence as of the date of injury. Though the specific question facing us today has not previously been raised before this board or before our courts of appeal, said courts have more generally stated that the elements of dependency are fixed at the time of a claimant’s injury. Wheat v. Red Star Express Lines, 156 Conn. 245, 249 (1968); Whalen v. New Haven Pulp & Board Co., 127 Conn. 394, 395 (1940). Without more specific language in § 31-306 suggesting that the instant situation is different, we cannot adopt the construction advocated by the claimant.

The trial commissioner’s decision is hereby affirmed.

Commissioners George A. Waldron and Ernie R. Walker concur.

Workers’ Compensation Commission

Page last revised: December 21, 2004

Page URL: http://wcc.state.ct.us/crb/2001/4226crb.htm

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