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Smith v. American & Efird Mills

Filed: May 4, 1982.

SPURGEON W. SMITH, EMPLOYEE, PLAINTIFF
v.
AMERICAN & EFIRD MILLS, EMPLOYER, AND AETNA LIFE & CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, CARRIER, DEFENDANTS



Appeal by defendants, employer American & Efird Mills and insurance carrier Aetna Life & Casualty Insurance Company, from the decision of the North Carolina Court of Appeals (Clark, J., with Martin (Robert M.) and Arnold, JJ., concurring) reported at Branch, Chief Justice. Justice Meyer dissenting.

Branch

At the threshold of this opinion, we emphasize that there was no appeal by defendants or plaintiff from the full Commission's

award of permanent partial disability as provided for in G.S. 97-30. Therefore, this portion of the case is not before us, and that award remains in full force and effect.

We approve and adopt as our own the well-reasoned and well-documented decision of the unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals. However, we deem it necessary to consider and decide two points which were not considered in the decision of the Court of Appeals.

I

The Court of Appeals failed to address the question of whether application of the 1978 version of G.S. 97-29 to the facts of the case before us constituted an unconstitutional retroactive application of substantive law.

Defendants argue that when plaintiff suffered "a diminished capacity to earn money" in 1970, his claim vested substantively and his employer was exposed to liability at that time. Defendants therefore contend that to apply the 1978 statute would interfere with vested rights and liabilities so as to contravene Article I, Section 16, of the North Carolina Constitution*fn1 and Article I, Section 10, of the United States Constitution. We do not agree.

It must be first borne in mind that there is nothing before this Court relating to plaintiff's entitlement under G.S. 97-30 to permanent partial disability compensation for the period 1970 to 1978. The sole question before us in deciding this assignment of error is whether plaintiff's claim for permanent total disability amounted to a retroactive application of the 1978 version of G.S. 97-29. (1973 N.C. Sess. Laws Ch. 1308, ยงยง 1, 2). In our opinion, Wood v. Stevens & Co., 297 N.C. 636, 256 S.E.2d 692 (1979), is dispositive of this question and answers it adversely to defendants' contention. In Wood Chief Justice Sharp speaking for a unanimous Court (Justice Brock taking no part in the consideration or decision of the case) stated:

The proper question for consideration is not whether the amendment affects some imagined obligation of contract but rather whether it interferes with vested rights and liabilities. As we observed in Booker v. Medical Center, a statute is not unconstitutionally retroactive merely because it operates on facts which were in existence before its enactment. 297 N.C. at 467, 256 S.E.2d at 195. See in accord, Frisbie v. Sunshine Mining Co., 93 Idaho 169, 457 P. 2d 408 (1969); Tennessee Insurance Guaranty Association v. Pack, 517 S.W. 2d 526 (Tenn. 1974); Sizemore v. State Workmen's Compensation Commissioner, 219 S.E.2d 912 (W.Va. 1975). Instead, a statute is impermissibly retrospective only when it interferes with rights which had vested or liabilities which had accrued prior to its passage. Spencer v. Motor Co., 236 N.C. 239, 72 S.E.2d 598 (1952); Wilson v. Anderson, 232 N.C. 212, 59 S.E.2d 836 (1950); B-C Remedy Co. v. Unemployment Compensation Commission, 226 N.C. 52, 36 S.E.2d 733 (1946).

Id. at 650, 256 S.E.2d at 701.

All of the evidence in this record discloses that plaintiff did not become totally disabled until 1978. Thus, no right to recover for permanent total disability vested in plaintiff until after the enactment of the 1978 version of G.S. 97-29. No possible liability accrued to defendants as a result of plaintiff's permanent total disability until after the enactment and effective date of the 1973 revision of G.S. 97-29.

We therefore hold that application of the 1978 version of G.S. 97-29 to the facts in instant case did not constitute an unconstitutional application of substantive law.

II

The other question which the Court of Appeals failed to address was whether the Industrial Commission erred in limiting its award of medical expenses in conjunction with the permanent partial award to 300 weeks.

The Commission determined that plaintiff's partial incapacity and entitlement for an award for medical expenses began in 1970. Therefore, consistent with the decision of the Court of Appeals, the award of medical expenses for the period of partial disability must be governed by the pertinent statutes in effect in the year

1970. The full Commission's award in instant case made no reference to the statute under which it made its award. In 1970 G.S. 97-25 and G.S. 97-59 each contained provisions applicable to an employee's entitlement to an award for medical expenses.

G.S. 97-25 is the more general of the two statutes and was first enacted as a part of the original North Carolina Workmen's*fn2 Compensation Act. 1929 N.C. Sess. Laws Ch. 120. The original act made no provisions for occupational diseases but applied only to injuries by accident. The original provisions of G.S. 97-25 limited allowable medical expenses to ten weeks for treatment "required to effect a cure or give relief and for such additional time as in the judgment of the Commission will tend to lessen the period of disability. . . ."

G.S. 97-59 was enacted in 1935 when the provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act were revised so as to extend coverage for victims of occupational diseases. In 1970 that statute specifically provided:

In the event of disability from an occupational disease, the employer shall provide reasonable medical and/or other treatment for such time as in the judgment of the Industrial Commission will tend to lessen the period of ...


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