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Penegar v. United Parcel Service

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 1, 2018

CARRA JANE PENEGAR, Widow and Executrix of the Estate of JOHNNY RAY PENEGAR, Deceased Employee, Plaintiff,

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 18 October 2017.

          Appeal by Plaintiff and Defendants from an Opinion and Award entered 8 December 2016 by the Full North Carolina Industrial Commission Nos. 14-769356 & 15-742389.

          Wallace and Graham, P.A., by Michael B. Pross, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Goodman McGuffey, LLP, by Jennifer Jerzak Blackman, for Defendants-Appellants.

          INMAN, Judge.

         The North Carolina Industrial Commission (the "Commission") did not err in finding that an employee's last injurious exposure to asbestos, which contributed to his development of an occupational disease, occurred during the thirty years he worked for his primary lifetime employer, based on the testimony of his former co-workers and medical experts, and in the absence of any evidence that he was exposed to asbestos at any subsequent job. Nor did the Commission err in calculating the employee's average weekly wage based upon the employee's earnings in the year immediately preceding his diagnosis.

         This case arises out of a workers' compensation claim filed by Johnny Ray Penegar ("Decedent") against United Parcel Service ("Employer" or "UPS") and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company ("Carrier") (collectively "Defendants"), asserting compensation for Decedent's mesothelioma. Carra Jane Penegar ("Plaintiff"), Decedent's wife and executrix of his estate, was substituted as Plaintiff following Decedent's death on 26 March 2015 during the pendency of this action. Both parties appeal from the opinion and award of the Full North Carolina Industrial Commission, which awarded Plaintiff compensation for all of Decedent's medical expenses associated with his diagnosis of mesothelioma, total disability compensation, burial expenses, and death benefits.

         Defendants argue that the Commission's findings that Plaintiff was injuriously exposed to asbestos while employed by UPS and that Plaintiff's last injurious exposure to asbestos occurred at UPS are unsupported by competent evidence.

         Plaintiff argues that the Commission lacked jurisdiction to revise the Deputy Commissioner's calculation of the average weekly wage, and, assuming jurisdiction, that the Commission's calculation was incorrect. Additionally, Plaintiff asserts that the Commission failed to address the issue, raised by Plaintiff on appeal from the Deputy Commissioner's opinion and award, of the appropriate maximum compensation rate to be applied to Decedent's claim. After careful review, we affirm the Commission's finding that Decedent's last injurious exposure to asbestos occurred while Decedent was employed with UPS. We also affirm the Commission's recalculation of Decedent's average weekly wage. We dismiss as moot Plaintiff's appeal from the Commission's failure to address the Deputy Commissioner's calculation of the maximum compensation rate.

         Factual and Procedural History

         Decedent worked for UPS for thirty years, from 1967 until 1998, as a feeder driver based in UPS's Charlotte facility. Decedent's duties included driving a tracker-trailer to destinations within 200 miles and back each day. The Charlotte facility was a large, open building approximately the size of two or three football fields, in which the main area, referred to by employees as the "shop, " consisted of various unseparated bays designated "tractor shop" or "package car shop" depending on what vehicles were being repaired or maintained in each. Decedent walked through the shop nearly every day to get from his truck to the employee locker room. Decedent would often stop in the shop to talk with mechanics while they worked.

         UPS employed its own mechanics to service the vehicles in its fleet during the entirety of Decedent's employment. Standard service tasks included maintaining and repairing brakes. In any given week, between three and seven brake jobs were performed in the shop. A typical brake job included banging the brake drums on the ground and using compressed air to clear off the brake dust. The brake pads used by UPS during Decedent's employment contained asbestos, and would release asbestos fibers into the air during brake jobs. Starting in the mid-1980s, UPS provided protective masks to the mechanics, but did not at any time provide a protective mask to Decedent.

         Following his employment with UPS, from 1999 until 2002, Decedent drove a transfer van for Union County. He also worked for a church and for Union County Schools. Decedent continued to work part-time until 2012.

         On 8 February 2013, Decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Prior to his death on 26 March 2016, Decedent filed a claim with the Commission alleging that his mesothelioma developed as a result of asbestos exposure during his employment with UPS.

         Plaintiff presented testimony from two former UPS mechanics and two medical experts. The mechanics testified that asbestos was present at the Charlotte facility. The medical experts testified that exposure to asbestos in the UPS facility caused Decedent to develop mesothelioma or contributed to him developing that disease. Defendants presented two expert witnesses-an expert in industrial hygiene and an expert in pathology.

         The Deputy Commissioner issued an opinion and award finding that Decedent was last injuriously exposed to asbestos, and the hazards of developing mesothelioma, during his employment with UPS. The Deputy Commissioner awarded Plaintiff 500 weeks of wage compensation, calculated using Decedent's average weekly wage from 1998 of $690.10, the last year he worked for UPS, and limited by the maximum compensation rate for 1998, so that Plaintiff was awarded $532.00 per week. The opinion and award also compensated Plaintiff for the medical expenses incurred treating Decedent's mesothelioma.

         Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration of the maximum compensation rate, arguing that the Deputy Commissioner should have used the maximum compensation rate from 2015-the date of Decedent's death. The Deputy Commissioner denied Plaintiff's motion.

         Both parties appealed to the Full Commission. Defendants challenged a majority of the Deputy Commissioner's findings of fact and all but one of the conclusions of law. Plaintiff challenged only the Deputy Commissioner's calculation of the appropriate maximum compensation rate.

         The Commission, on 8 December 2016, issued its opinion and award finding that Decedent's last injurious exposure to asbestos, and the hazards of mesothelioma, occurred while he was employed with UPS. The Commission recalculated and substantially reduced Decedent's average weekly wage, based on Decedent's earnings in the year prior to his diagnosis with mesothelioma, when he was no longer employed by UPS. Both parties appealed.


         I. Standard of Review

         "Appellate review of an award from the Industrial Commission is generally limited to two issues: (i) whether the findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, and (ii) whether the conclusions of law are justified by the findings of fact." Chambers v. Transit Mgmt., 360 N.C. 609, 611, 636 S.E.2d 553, 555 (2006) (citation omitted). Unchallenged findings of fact are presumed to be supported by competent evidence, and findings of fact supported by competent evidence are binding on appeal. Chaisson v. Simpson, 195 N.C.App. 463, 470, 673 S.E.2d 149, 156 (2009). The Commission's conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. McRae v. Toastmaster, Inc., 358 N.C. 488, 496, 597 S.E.2d 695, 701 (2004).

         II. Defendants' Appeal

         Defendants challenge the Commission's findings that (1) the brakes used by UPS at its Charlotte facility while Decedent was employed there contained asbestos and (2) Decedent was at an increased risk of asbestos exposure during his employment with UPS. Defendants also argue that Plaintiff failed to present evidence that Decedent was not exposed to asbestos during his subsequent employments, and therefore, the Commission's finding that Decedent's last injurious exposure to asbestos occurred at UPS is also unsupported by the evidence. We disagree.

         A. Injurious Exposure

         Defendants challenge the following findings of fact made by the Full Commission:

9. Vernon Thomas Pond worked as a mechanic for defendant-employer from 1972 to 2003 in the same facility as decedent. Mr. Pond testified, based upon his work and experience as a mechanic, that all brake shoes he worked on while employed by defendant-employer contained asbestos.
10. Bobby Bolin also worked for defendant-employer in mechanics, mostly performing maintenance on tractors and trailers. He began working for defendant-employer in or about 1967. Mr. Bolin testified that the work environment was "pretty dusty" and, even though he knew brakes contained asbestos as early as 1967, he was not aware that asbestos dust "was bad" until the mid-1980s. Mr. Bolin testified that defendant-employer provided mechanics with masks to protect against dust exposure in the mid-1980s and restricted the blowing of dust in the shop, but other employees walking through the shop were not provided with protective masks.
. . .
12. Based upon the preponderance of the evidence in view of the entire record, the Commission finds that the brakes utilized by defendant-employer in the maintenance of its trucks, tractors, and trailers contained asbestos. The competent and credible evidence of record demonstrates that such brakes contained asbestos from the mid-1960s until at least the mid-1980s and, to the extent the brakes continued to contain asbestos from the mid-1980s until decedent's retirement, decedent was not supplied with a protective mask to curtail his exposure to asbestos fibers while in the shop.
. . .
23. Dr. Harpole testified that, although decedent did not have "a giant exposure" to the hazards of asbestos like someone who worked in an asbestos factory, being around aerosolized asbestos in the air daily, or even every few days over a period of years, led to significant asbestos exposure for ...

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