On November 4, 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court filed its opinion in Folta v. Ferro Engineering, 2015 IL 118070. In a 4-2 decision, the Court held that an employee’s common law tort action against his employer is barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act and Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act (“the Act” or “the Acts”) even though no compensation is available under those acts due to statutory time limits on the employer’s liability. This decision represents a major victory for employer defendants in asbestos-related personal injury cases. Previously, there has been a split, specifically between how judges handling asbestos dockets in Cook County and Madison County have ruled on this particular issue. There is now clarity for courts throughout the state of Illinois as to how they should rule when faced with this common factual situation.
In this case, the decedent, James Folta, was an employee of Ferro Engineering from 1966-1970. During that time he was allegedly exposed to asbestos. Mr. Folta was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease, in 2011. At that time, any potential workers’ compensation claim was barred by the Act’s 25-year statute of repose. Unable to pursue a workers’ compensation claim, Folta filed a common law tort claim against Ferro Engineering. Ferro Engineering filed a motion to dismiss that was granted by the circuit court, and subsequently reversed by the appellate court. A full discussion of the appellate court’s decision can be found here.
On appeal, Folta’s main argument was that the exclusive remedy provisions of the Acts should not apply to his claim because his claim is not compensable under the Acts. The Court rejected this argument for several reasons. First, the Court noted that the Acts were designed to provide financial protection for accidental injuries arising out of, and in the course of employment. Specifically, the Acts were designed as a substitute for previous rights of action of employees against employers, and to cover the whole ground of the liabilities of the employer. The Court stated that the exclusive remedy provisions were included as part of the quid pro quo which balances the sacrifices and gains of the employees and employers under the system. Clearly, the Court determined that the exclusive remedy provisions in the Acts are vital to the workers’ compensation framework, and allowing Plaintiff’s common law claim would undermine the framework of that system.
Second, the Court reviewed the case law in Illinois interpreting the phrase “non-compensable” under the Acts. The Court concluded that the case law stands for the proposition that whether an injury is compensable is related to whether the type of injury categorically fits within the purview of the acts. See, e.g., Pathfinder Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, 62 Ill. 2d 556 (1976); Collier v. Wagner Castings Co., 81 Ill. 2d 229 (1980); Meerbrey v. Marshall Field & Co., 139 Ill. 2d 455 (1990). This is contrary to the Plaintiff’s argument that an injury’s compensability is defined by whether there is an ability to recover benefits for a particular injury sustained by the employee. The Court noted that asbestos-related diseases are the types of diseases intended to fall within the purview of the Acts. The Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act specifically addresses asbestos-related diseases and numerous employees have recovered workers’ compensation benefits for injuries, disabilities or death arising out of workplace asbestos exposure. See, e.g., Kieffer & Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, 263 Ill. App. 3d 294 (1994); Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Industrial Comm’n, 198 Ill. App. 3d 605 (1990); H&H Plumbing Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, 170 Ill. App. 3d 706 (1988). Further, the Court noted that it has applied the exclusive remedy provision in cases where there were limitations on the amount and type of recovery. See, e.g., Moushon v. National Garages, Inc., 9 Ill. 2d 407 (1956); Duley v. Caterpillar Tractor Co., 44 Ill. 2d 15 (1969).
Third, the Court looked at the language of the sections establishing the 25-year limitation for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Based on the plain language, these sections act as a statute of repose, creating an absolute bar to bring a claim. The Court stated that the purpose of a statute of repose period is to terminate the possibility of liability after a defined period, and the fact that Folta was not at fault for failing to file a claim sooner due to the nature of his disease is irrelevant. According to the Court, to construe the scope of the exclusive remedy provision to allow for a common law action would mean that the statute of repose would cease to serve its function, contrary to the intent of the legislature.
Finally, the Court rejected Folta’s argument that Section 1(f) of the Act dictated that the proper recourse for his injury was under common law, and that applying the exclusive remedy provisions of the acts would violate the Illinois Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection. The Court rejected the section 1(f) argument because that section has functioned as a temporal limitation on the availability of benefits and not as a basis to remove occupational disease from the purview of the Act. The equal protection argument was rejected because the Court found that all injured workers are treated equally in terms of the right to bring an action for damages. All injured workers are precluded from seeking common law damages.
Again, this decision represents a victory for employer defendants involved in asbestos-related personal injury cases throughout the state of Illinois. The workers’ compensation exclusive remedy defense is an argument we have successfully made on behalf of our clients in the past, and will certainly continue to make in the future.