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Vasquez v. Double Press Mfg., Inc.

Supreme Court of Oregon

April 4, 2019

Zeferino VASQUEZ, Respondent on Review,
v.
DOUBLE PRESS MFG., INC., a California corporation, Petitioner on Review.

          Argued and submitted September 14, 2018

          On review from the Court of Appeals. [*] No. CC 110302844, CA A154774

          Janet M. Schroer, Hart Wagner LLP, Portland, argued the cause and fled the briefs for petitioner on review. Also on the briefs were Ruth C. Rocker and Jonathan W. Henderson, Davis Rothwell Earle & Xochihua, PC.

          Kathryn H. Clarke, Portland, argued the cause and fled the brief for the respondent on review. Also on the brief were Mark McDougal and Gregory Kafoury.

          Brad S. Daniels, Stoel Rives LLP, Portland, fled the brief for amicus curiae Direct Selling Association.

          Julie A. Smith, Cosgrave Vergeer Kester LLP, Portland, fled the brief for amicus curiae McInnis Waste Systems, Inc.

          Susan Marmaduke and J. Aaron Landau, Harrang Long Gary Rudnick P.C., Portland, fled the briefs for amicus cur-iae Oregon Liability Reform Coalition. Also on the briefs was Sharon A. Rudnick.

          Hillary A. Taylor, Keating Jones Hughes, PC, Portland, fled the briefs for amici curiae Oregon Medical Association, American Medical Association, and Oregon Association of Defense Counsel.

          Travis Eiva, Eugene, fled the brief for amicus curiae Oregon Jury Project.

          [364 Or. 610] James S. Coon, Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost, Portland, Nadia Dahab, Stoll Stoll Berne Lokting & Schlachter, PC, Portland, and W. Eugene Hallman, Hallman Law Offce, Pendleton, fled the brief for amicus curiae Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.

          Before Walters, Chief Justice, and Balmer, Nakamoto, Duncan, and Nelson, Justices, and Kistler and Landau, Senior Justices pro tempore. [**]

         The decision of the Court of Appeals and the judgment of the circuit court are affrmed.

         Case Summary: Plaintiff was injured at work while using a hay baling machine that was made, sold, and installed by defendant. He brought this tort action against defendant and was awarded $6, 199, 090, which included noneco-nomic damages. Defendant asserted that, under ORS 31.710(1), plaintiff's non-economic damages should be capped at $500, 000. Held: The noneconomic damages cap in ORS 31.710(1) contains an exception for "claims" that are "subject to" ORS chapter 656. Although mostly concerning claims for workers' compensation benefts from an employer's insurer, ORS chapter 656 also contains provisions governing when an injured worker can seek damages in tort from a third party, or an employer not in compliance with the workers' compensation insurance laws, as well as provisions for insurers to recover based on third-party liability for amounts paid to an injured worker. The Court rejected defendant's argument that, when the legislature referred to claims subject to ORS chapter 656, it meant only claims for workers' compensation insurance benefts. The Court concluded that actions against third parties based on workplace injuries fell within the exception to the noneconomic damages cap in ORS 31.710(1).

          [364 Or. 611] NAKAMOTO, J.

         Defendant Double Press Manufacturing, Inc. seeks review of a decision of the Court of Appeals affirming a trial court judgment against defendant that included an award of noneconomic damages to plaintiff in the amount of $4, 860, 000. Defendant contends that the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the remedy clause of Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution precluded a reduction of plaintiff's noneconomic damages to $500, 000 in accordance with the statutory damages cap set out in ORS 31.710(1). Plaintiff requests review of another aspect of the decision, arguing that the Court of Appeals erroneously rejected his statutory argument that his claim was exempt from the damages cap. For the reasons set out below, we agree with plaintiff, and we affirm the judgment of the trial court and the decision of the Court of Appeals, but on different grounds, namely, that plaintiff's claim falls within a statutory exception to the damages cap for "claims subject to * * * ORS chapter 656."

         I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW

         We recount the facts consistently with the jury's verdict. Mead v. Legacy Health System, 352 Or. 267, 269 n 2, 283 P.3d 904 (2012). In the course of his employment with a feed dealer, plaintiff was responsible for operating and cleaning a machine used in hay baling. When plaintiff cleaned the machine, his usual procedure involved pushing a button on the control panel in the tower from which he operated the machine, switching the machine from automatic to manual mode. He would then shut off the power source supply with a key and remove the key.

         One day in 2010, plaintiff did not follow that procedure. At the end of his shift, plaintiff did not switch the machine from automatic to manual mode, nor did he lock the machine. To remove jammed material, plaintiff climbed into an area of the machine where a hydraulic ram was located. The machine, still in automatic mode, pinched plaintiff between the hydraulic ram and the frame of the machine, crushing his spine and causing other injuries. As a result of those injuries, plaintiff is paraplegic. It is undisputed that, [364 Or. 612] because of his injuries at work, plaintiff received workers' compensation benefits from his employer's workers' compensation insurance carrier.

         Plaintiff then brought this action against defendant, which had made, sold, and installed the machine. The case went to trial on plaintiff's claim that defendant had been negligent in designing, manufacturing, installing, or selling the machine. At trial, plaintiff acknowledged that he was partially at fault for his injuries because he had left the machine in automatic mode. The jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor in the amount of $2, 231, 817 in economic damages and $8, 100, 000 in noneconomic damages. The jury also found that plaintiff was 40 percent at fault for his injuries. In accordance with the verdict, the trial court reduced plaintiffs damages by 40 percent and entered a judgment in plaintiffs favor in the amount of $6, 199, 090.

         Defendant moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial. As it had argued in various motions before trial, defendant argued in part that, under ORS 31.710(1), plaintiff's noneconomic damages should be capped at $500, 000. The trial court rejected that argument in light of this court's decision in Lakin v. Senco Products, Inc., 329 Or. 62, 987 P.2d 463, modified, 329 Or. 369, 987 P.2d 476 (1999), in which this court had held that the $500, 000 statutory cap on noneconomic damages, then codified as former ORS 18.560(1) (1999), violated the jury trial provision of Article I, section 17, of the Oregon Constitution.

         After the trial court denied its post-trial motions, defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed, also based on this court's holding in Lakin. Vasquez v. Double Press Mfg., Inc., 278 Or App. 77, 372 P.3d 605 (2016). But the day after the Court of Appeals decided this case, this court overruled Lakin in Horton v. Oregon Health Sciences University, 359 Or. 168, 376 P.3d 998 (2016).

         On reconsideration in light of Horton, the Court of Appeals withdrew its previous opinion and then addressed plaintiffs alternative bases for affirmance: that the non-economic damages award in this case fell within an exception in ORS 31.710(1) and that the cap on noneconomic [364 Or. 613] damages found in ORS 31.710(1) violates the remedy clause of Article I, section 10, of the Oregon Constitution. Vasquez v. Double Press Mfg, Inc, 288 Or App. 503, 406 P.3d 225 (2017) The Court of Appeals rejected the first of those arguments, but it agreed with the second and therefore affirmed the judgment Id. at 512-26 In a concurring opinion, Judge Egan concluded that there was no need to reach the constitutional issue because plaintiff was correct that the noneconomic damages award fell within an exception to damages cap in ORS 31710(1) for claims "subject to" ORS chapter 656, which concerns workers' compensation Id. at 526-27 (Egan, J, concurring).

         Defendant petitioned this court for review, arguing that the Court of Appeals had erred in its interpretation of Article I, section 10. Defendant argues that the Court of Appeals misapplied Horton (which had addressed not only Article I, section 17, but also the remedy clause in Article I, section 10) in concluding that the cap on non-economic damages under ORS 31.710(1) violated the remedy clause as applied in the present case. In particular, defendant relies on a case from this court that predated Horton: Griest v. Phillips, 322 Or. 281, 906 P.2d 789 (1994). In Griest, this court held that the cap on noneconomic damages in ORS 31.710(1) (then codified as former ORS 18.560(1)) did not violate the remedy clause, as applied to the facts of that case. Defendant also argues that the cap on noneconomic damages, which the legislature enacted in 1987, was a permissible quid pro quo for the legislature previously having expanded tort liability earlier in the century by allowing recovery in cases involving comparative negligence.

         In response, plaintiff asserts that the Court of Appeals correctly applied Horton and concluded that application of the damages cap of ORS 31.710(1) under these circumstances violated Article I, section 10. In addition, plaintiff reasserts that, because the injury at issue in this case occurred in the course and scope of his employment, his claim against defendant was a third-party claim "subject to" various provisions of the workers' compensation laws in ORS chapter 656, and it therefore fell within the exception [364 Or. 614] provided in ORS 31.710(1), as Judge Egan had asserted in his concurring opinion in the Court of Appeals.[1]

         II. ANALYSIS

         As a general matter, this court will "avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them." State v. Barrett, 350 Or. 390, 397, 98, 255 P.3d 472 (2011). Thus, if a statutory analysis will provide "a complete answer to the legal question that a case presents, we ordinarily decide the case on that basis, rather than turning to constitutional provisions." Rico-Villalobos v. Giusto, 339 Or. 197, 205, 118 P.3d 246 (2005). Following that practice, we turn to the question whether plaintiff is correct that his negligence claim against defendant was "subject to" ORS chapter 656 and, therefore, was not within the scope of the damages cap set out in ORS 31.710(1). As explained below, because we conclude that plaintiff's argument regarding ORS chapter 656 provides "a complete answer to the legal question" presented, we do not reach the parties' constitutional arguments, and we affirm the judgment of the trial court and the decision of the Court of Appeals on that alternative statutory basis.

         A. Statutory Backdrop and Parties' Arguments

         Under ORS 31.710(1), noneconomic damages in civil actions involving bodily injury are capped at $500, 000, "[e]xcept for claims subject to ORS 30.260 to 30.300 and ORS chapter 656[.]" The workers' compensation laws found in ORS chapter 656 govern a no-fault compensation system that provides insurance coverage for workplace injuries and that generally precludes an injured worker from seeking other remedies against the employer.

         Plaintiff argues that, although the present case is not a claim against his employer, it is nonetheless "subject to" ORS chapter 656, as that term is used in ORS 31.710(1). Plaintiff points out that numerous provisions within ORS chapter 656—other than those relating to workers' compensation insurance coverage—pertain to workers' rights [364 Or. 615] to recover tort remedies based on workplace injuries. See, e.g., ORS 656.020 (authorizing actions for damages against employers who are not in compliance with the workers' compensation laws, but abolishing historical defenses to such actions such as contributory negligence, the fellow-servant rule, and assumption of risk); ORS 656.154 (if workplace injury is due to negligence of third party other than employer or another employee, injured worker may ...


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