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Doyle v. Rhodes





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Second District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County, the Hon. Alford R. Penninman, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied March 30, 1984.

We are required here to construe and apply the Illinois Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 70, par. 301 et seq.) (hereafter referred to as the Contribution Act) which was enacted following the decision in Skinner v. Reed-Prentice Division Package Machinery Co. (1977), 70 Ill.2d 1, cert. denied (1978), 436 U.S. 946, 56 L.Ed.2d 787, 98 S.Ct. 2849. More specifically we are called upon to decide whether the immunity of an employer from an action at law by an injured employee provided by sections 5(a) and 11 of the Workers' Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 48, pars. 138.5(a), 138.11) also bars an action for contribution against the employer by a third party who was partially responsible for the employee's injury; in addition we are asked to decide whether a person who fails to comply with a safety statute is liable in contribution for the entire judgment or only that portion of the judgment attributable to his failure.

The original plaintiff, Charles L. Doyle, sued the defendant, Kathleen C. Rhodes, in the circuit court of Winnebago County seeking recovery for injuries he received while at work as a highway flagman employed by Rein, Schultz & Dahl, a highway contractor, when he was struck by an automobile driven by the defendant. The defendant filed a third-party complaint against Rein, Schultz & Dahl seeking contribution under the statute set forth above. In her third-party complaint, defendant charged that Rein, Schultz & Dahl was negligent and also that it had violated provisions of "An Act to protect workers and the general public from injury or death during construction or repair of bridges and highways * * *" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 121, par. 314.1 et seq.) (hereafter referred to as the Road Construction Injuries Act). An interrogatory answer filed by the injured employee stated that his employer's compensation carrier had made an offer to settle his compensation claim; we find no further references in the record to the status or disposition of compensation proceedings.

The circuit court dismissed the third-party complaint on the motion of the third-party defendant and certified under Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (73 Ill.2d R. 304(a)) that there was no just reason to delay appeal. The appellate court reversed the circuit court with instructions to the circuit court to vacate its order dismissing the third-party complaint. (109 Ill. App.3d 590.) It held that, although the third-party complaint for contribution stated a cause of action, the third-party defendant would be responsible only for the proportion of Doyle's judgment against the third-party plaintiff that was caused by either the third-party defendant's negligence or failure to comply with the requirements of the Road Construction Injuries Act.

Both the third-party plaintiff and the third-party defendant sought leave to appeal. The third-party plaintiff contended by her petition that, because we held in Vegich v. McDougal Hartmann Co. (1981), 84 Ill.2d 461, that contributory negligence was not a defense to a claim charging violation of the Road Construction Injuries Act, the full burden of the loss for a wilful violation fell upon the road contractor, and the third-party defendant was liable under the contribution statute for the entire amount of the judgment rather than a portion determined by the extent of its comparative negligence. The third-party defendant, by its petition, contended that because of the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers' Compensation Act, it was not liable to Doyle, its employee, in tort and consequently was not subject to recovery under the contribution statute. For that reason, it urged, the third-party plaintiff was not entitled to any recovery against it. We allowed both petitions for leave to appeal (87 Ill.2d R. 315) and consolidated them.

We address first the third-party defendant's contention that its statutory immunity under sections 5(a) and 11 of the Workers' Compensation Act from tort actions by its employees also immunizes it from this claim under the Contribution Act.

The relevant portion of the Contribution Act provides:

"Right of Contribution. (a) Except as otherwise provided in this Act, where 2 or more persons are subject to liability in tort arising out of the same injury to person or property, or the same wrongful death, there is a right of contribution among them, even though judgment has not been entered against any or all of them." (Emphasis added.) Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 70, par. 302(a).

The employer argues here that a workers' compensation claim is the sole remedy in Illinois of an injured employee against his employer, and that the employer is not "subject to liability in tort" to its employee and, therefore, the Contribution Act is not applicable to an employer in situations involving injury to one of its employees.

Many jurisdictions which recognize the principle of contribution among tortfeasors do not permit claims for contribution by a third party sued by an injured employee against the plaintiff's employer even where the employer's concurring negligence contributed to the injury. (E.g., Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Thompson Aircraft Tire Corp. (Fla. App. 1977), 353 So.2d 137; Cacchillo v. H. Leach Machinery Co. (1973), 111 R.I. 593, 305 A.2d 541; Farren v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority (1954), 31 N.J. Super. 356, 106 A.2d 752; Lovette v. Lloyd (1953), 236 N.C. 663, 73 S.E.2d 886; Baltimore Transit Co. v. State ex rel. Schriefer (1944), 183 Md. 674, 39 A.2d 858; see generally Annot., 53 A.L.R.2d 977 (1957).) In some of these jurisdictions, provisions of the Workers' Compensation Act have been held to preclude such third-party claims, while in others it has been decided that the contribution statute does not permit them. See Weisgall, Product Liability in the Workplace: The Effect of Workers' Compensation on the Rights and Liabilities of Third Parties, 1977 Wis. L. Rev. 1035, 1041-43 nn. 24-31.

In Illinois, however, the starting point for determining the interplay of the Contribution Act and the Workers' Compensation Act is Skinner v. Reed-Prentice Division Package Machinery Co. (1977), 70 Ill.2d 1, cert. denied (1978), 436 U.S. 946, 56 L.Ed.2d 787, 98 S.Ct. 2849, the decision which overturned the long-standing common law rule which prohibited contribution among tortfeasors. Skinner, like this case, involved a claim for contribution against an employer who had already been subjected to a workmen's compensation claim by his employee. The employee filed a tort action, seeking to recover for his injury, against the manufacturer of an injection molding machine on which the employee was working when it malfunctioned. As in this case, the original defendant in Skinner filed a third-party complaint against the plaintiff's employer claiming contribution. The claim against the original defendant, the manufacturer, in Skinner was based on strict product liability because of the alleged malfunction of the machine, rather than on negligence, the basis for the action against Rhodes, the original defendant and third-party plaintiff in this case. Also, the third-party complaint in Skinner alleged negligence by the employer which this court construed to allege misuse of the product and assumption of risk on the part of the employer, while in this case Rhodes alleged both negligence on the part of the employer and failure to comply with the Road Construction Injuries Act, a safety statute. We find nothing in these differences sufficient to prevent the following conclusion in Skinner from being equally applicable to this case: "The fact that the employee's action against the employer is barred by the Workmen's Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, pars. 138.5, 138.11) would not preclude the manufacturer's third-party action against the employer for indemnification (Miller v. DeWitt, 37 Ill.2d 273) and should not serve to bar its action for contribution." (70 Ill.2d 1, 15-16.) Thus, were it not for the intervening enactment of the Contribution Act in September 1979, we would simply hold, in reliance on Skinner, that the employer was not immune from the third-party action. The question in this case, however, is whether the statute enacted subsequent to Skinner changes the employer's posture. Our conclusion is that it does not.

The statute, as adopted in Illinois, was intended to codify the Skinner decision, not to diminish its scope. Its sponsor in the House of Representatives, Representative Daniels, and Representative Jaffe both stated on June 14, 1979, that the purpose of the bill was to codify the decision in the Skinner case, and there is nothing in the brief Senate and House debates to indicate that it had any other purpose. See 81st Ill. Gen. Assem., Transcript of House Proceedings, June 14, 1979, at 18, 21 (statements of Representative Daniels) (statements of Representative Jaffe); compare 81st Ill. Gen. Assem., Transcript of Senate Proceedings, May 14, 1979, at 173-76. Consistent with the views expressed by Representatives Daniels and Jaffe are the recent observations of this court in Coney v. J.L.G. Industries, Inc. (1983), 97 Ill.2d 104, 126, and Stephens v. McBride (1983), 97 Ill.2d 515, 521-22. In the former case we said "Skinner * * * was codified in `An Act in relation to contribution among joint tortfeasors.'" In Stephens our reference to this subject was again unequivocal. We said there: "The doctrine of contribution was recognized in this jurisdiction in 1977 when this court decided Skinner v. Reed-Prentice Division Package Machinery Co. (1977), 70 Ill.2d 1. The rule adopted in Skinner was codified and clarified by the General Assembly in 1979 ...

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