WRIT OF ERROR to the Superior Court of Cook County; the Hon.
JOHN A. SBARBARO, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE CRAMPTON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied January 21, 1952.
Claimant, Dennis Ballard, filed a claim for compensation against the Wisconsin Steel Works of the International Harvester Company, his employer. The arbitrator entered an award, which was sustained by the Industrial Commission, and confirmed by the superior court of Cook County. We granted a writ of error.
The sole question in the case is whether the claimant filed his claim in apt time in compliance with the jurisdictional requirements of the act. Ill. Rev. Stat. 1949, chap. 48, par. 161.
Claimant, 54 years of age, had been employed by the Wisconsin Steel Works as a coal scooper for three and one-half years, and asserts an injury to his left eye occurred when struck by a piece of coal on September 9, 1946, in the course of his employment. It is uncontroverted that he went to the office of the company's head physician the following day and related what had happened the day before. He was sent to an eye specialist who, after examining the eye, sent him to the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary where his eye was treated several times and hospitalization occurred from September 16 to 27, 1946. The hospital record shows a finding on September 12 of an ulcer on the left cornea, which could have been caused by being hit with a piece of coal. After his discharge, the patient was under treatment for eight or nine months, returning to the hospital numerous times for treatment during that time. The employer's plant physician saw him once a week during his treatment as an out-patient. The ultimate result was the loss of vision of the left eye and, after a ninemonths' period of temporary total disability, he returned to work.
The application for adjustment of claim in this case was not filed until December 22, 1947, more than fifteen months after the alleged injury occurred. Following his return to work claimant asked the head foreman of his department: "Ain't I supposed to get some consideration or you forgetting my hurt?" The foreman replied that he could do nothing about it; that it would have to be someone else. Claimant then spoke to his union delegate and later, on the date indicated, his application for adjustment of claim was filed.
During the period of temporary disability, he was paid and he received weekly benefits from the funds of the "Employes' Benefit Association," totaling $796, represented by a total of 27 checks, the last of which was dated June 20, 1947. This association was established in 1908 as a voluntary unincorporated association by the parent company for those employees who elected to become members. One half of the governing board of trustees are appointed by the employer and one half elected by employee members. The president of International Harvester Company is a voting member and, ex officio, the chairman of the board of trustees. Contributions to the fund are made by each member, deducted from his pay checks, and annual payments are made by the company. Under the regulations, the company contributed $50,000 each year from 1936 to 1940, and since 1940 increased its contributions to 20 per cent of the aggregate employees' contributions, and, in addition, makes payments of amounts equal to employees' contributions for hospitalization and pays all necessary traveling expenses of the employee trustees and for their time spent attending meetings, and administrative expenses. A manager, an employee appointed by the trustees, administers the affairs of the association and determines and passes upon all claims and signs all orders for payments of benefits. The purpose of the fund is to cover weekly amounts and other benefits to employee-members for illness or accidental injury not covered by compensation payments. Members employed in jurisdictions in which there are no compensating acts for workmen's compensation or occupational diseases pay a higher rate of contributions and receive benefits for injuries incurred in the course of their employments. The regulations further provide that members of the association, who are covered by any workmen's compensation law or workmen's occupational diseases act, shall not receive any benefits from the association for disabilities arising out of, and in the course of, the employment, for which they are entitled to receive compensation under such laws, and that no member shall receive benefits from the association at the time he is receiving compensation under any workmen's compensation act or occupational diseases act. In the event a member-employee should make and establish a claim for workmen's compensation on account of the disability for which he received benefits, such member, it is provided, shall be obligated to reimburse the association for all payments theretofore made, and, likewise, it is provided that when it develops that a disability claim was in fact a compensation claim, the employee shall reimburse the association for benefits theretofore paid by the association, and the arbitrator is authorized to provide for such reimbursements by reduction from, or credit upon, the amount of the award, and that was what was done in this case.
The checks used to pay the benefits to the claimant were all on a form adopted by the association bearing the printed names of "Employes' Benefit Association" and "International Harvester Company," both at the top and in the lower right-hand corner. Also, on the face of each check was a statement that it was a payment of "sickness" benefits. Checks used to pay workmen's compensation benefits were under the name International Harvester Company, only. The association's 27 checks for sickness benefits were signed by three of the six persons authorized to sign checks drawn on the association's funds. No one of these persons had authority to sign checks on the company's funds. Nor did anyone authorized to sign checks on the company's funds have any authority to sign any checks on the association's funds, although it appears from the record that employees were given checks in the same offices and by the same personnel for both types of disability, namely, sickness benefits and workmen's compensation.
The employer makes the sole contention that the Industrial Commission lacked jurisdiction to entertain the application for adjustment of claim because it was not filed within one year after the date of the accident, as required by section 24 of the Workmen's Compensation Act, in cases where no compensation has been paid. Claimant maintains that the issue is one of fact, based upon conflicting testimony that the employer had paid him compensation on account of his accidental injury, and that the finding is not manifestly contrary to the weight of the evidence as sustained by ample, competent evidence in the record. Section 24 of the Workmen's Compensation Act provides that in any case, unless an application is filed with the Industrial Commission within one year after the date of the injury, or within one year after the date of the last payment of compensation, the right to file such application shall be barred. The making of a claim for compensation within the prescribed period is jurisdictional and a condition precedent to the right to maintain a proceeding under the statute. (Lewis v. Industrial Com. 357 Ill. 309; American Car and Foundry Co. v. Industrial Com. 335 Ill. 322; City of Rochelle v. Industrial Com. 332 Ill. 386; Inland Rubber Co. v. Industrial Com. 309 Ill. 43.) The command of the statute is unequivocal and does not admit of construction. Specifically, the statute provides that the application for compensation must be filed (1) within one year after the date of the injury, or (2) within one year after the date of the last payment of compensation. (Burke v. Industrial Com. 368 Ill. 554.) Ordinarily, the question whether a claim for compensation has been made, as required, is a question of fact to be determined like any other similar question, (Black v. Industrial Com. 393 Ill. 187; United Airlines, Inc. v. Industrial Com. 364 Ill. 346; Lewis v. Industrial Com. 357 Ill. 309,) but, under the circumstances as they exist here, where there is no real dispute as to the testimony and only a dispute as to what it shows, the question becomes one of law. (Olney Seed Co. v. Industrial Com. 403 Ill. 587; Marsh v. Industrial Com. 386 Ill. 11; Ervin v. Industrial Com. 364 Ill. 56.) In such cases the decision of the Industrial Commission and the order of the lower court are not binding on this court. Kensington Steel Corp. v. Industrial Com. 385 Ill. 504; Yellow Cab Co. v. Industrial Com. 333 Ill. 49.
According to the testimony of claimant, claimant made inquiry concerning these payments asking "am I supposed to draw some compensation for my hurt, or draw some more of my insurance?" Claimant was then asked whether he would rather draw $18.50 as compensation, or $20 or $22 a week as he was then drawing, and he replied he preferred to draw the larger sum because he had a wife and child. It thus appears from the record that claimant had a full knowledge and understanding of the nature and source of the payments he was receiving. These facts were explained to him while he still had ample time to file a claim for compensation during the period of one year from the date of the accident, which he failed to do. Each check bore the statement that it was in payment of "sickness" benefits. Claimant contends he was not able to read and write and therefore should not be held to the statements and recitals clearly appearing on the checks. Presumably, he was capable of asking others to read it for him and should be held to such duty in the exercise of due care for his own interest. Not only did the payments lack any resemblance to compensation but they were expressly made on account of disabilities for which no protection was afforded by the act. To treat them nevertheless as payments of compensation under the act is to disregard the undisputed facts and to read into the statute a provision in contravention of its plain meaning and effect. There is nothing in its terms, either express or implied, which permits a construction that payments made for non-compensable disabilities are payments for compensable disabilities. The law is clear that payments unrelated to the provisions of the Workmen's Compensation Act, and inconsistent with any acknowledgment of its application, do not amount to payments of compensation which will stay the running of the limitations provision. Diamond T Motor Car Co. v. Industrial Com. 378 Ill. 203; Lewis v. Industrial Com. 357 Ill. 309; Ohio Oil Co. v. Industrial Com. 293 Ill. 461.
Not only do the payments fail to qualify as compensation but they were not even made by the employer. Claimant received the benefits in question from the Employes' Benefit Association, in response to his claim under its insurance provisions. That insurance was limited, as far as claimant is concerned, to illness and injuries for which he was not protected by the compensation laws. There was no act on the part of the employer which could reasonably be construed as a payment by it so as to toll the period of limitation within which the claim could be filed.
Injuries sustained by employees frequently make a strong appeal to the sympathies. It is regrettable that some of those entitled to relief under the law often fail by their own inaction to make timely applications for its benefits. But unsound and unwarranted interpretations of the law should not be made in order to excuse an individual from the consequences of such failure. The contention of claimant that payments made by the association for non-compensable sickness are tantamount to payments of "compensation" by the employer would be to announce a rule which is not only uncalled for by the act but which, in our opinion, will inevitably be to the detriment of employees in general. Obviously, few employers would hereafter be encouraged to participate in these employee benefit associations, knowing they may be faced at some time in the future with a finding that in providing such extra benefits for their employees they have in fact been paying "compensation" so as to extend the time within which they can be subjected to claims under the act. Such a rule, in its practical consequences to employees, will hardly further the policy of the act.
Moreover, if the present payments, from the funds to which the employee has contributed, are equivalent to "compensation," what shall be their effect under section 27(c) of the act? That section provides in part that "any device whereby the employee is required to pay any premium or premiums for insurance against the compensation provided for in this act shall be null and void, and any employer withholding from the wages of any employee any amount for the purpose of paying any such premium shall be guilty of a misdemeanor" punishable by fine and imprisonment. Are the payments by employee benefit associations to be construed as "compensation" for the purposes of this provision? If not, is the meaning of "compensation" to vary from section to section? We think it highly important that this court avoid constructions of statutory language which will render it devoid of any precision of meaning. It is only by recognizing the normal import of the word "compensation" as used in the act that employers, desiring to provide benefits for disabilities distinct from accidental injuries covered by the act, can be protected from undue legal hazards, and that employees can enjoy the greater benefits made possible by such co-operation.
An examination of the briefs of counsel and of the authorities fails to disclose any persuasive authority to support the position taken by claimant in this case. On the other hand, not only our decisions, cited above, but those in other jurisdictions where this question has arisen under similar statutory provisions, clearly hold in accordance with the views expressed here. (See, e.g., Solario v. Wilson & Co. 161 Kan. 518, 169 P.2d 822; Ashland Iron & Mining Co. v. Fowler, 208 Ky. 422, 271 S.W. 589; Sinclair Prairie Oil Co. v. Newport, 195 Okla. 521, 159 P.2d 726.) The payments made by the Employes' Benefit Association in the case at bar cannot reasonably be construed as payments of compensation by the employer so as to excuse claimant's ...