SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS
504 N.E.2d 84, 115 Ill. 2d 337, 105 Ill. Dec. 215 1987.IL.98
Appeal from the Industrial Commission Division of the Appellate Court; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Vermilion County, the Hon. John P. Meyer, Judge, presiding.
JUSTICE SIMON delivered the opinion of the court. JUSTICE WARD, Dissenting. JUSTICE GOLDENHERSH, also Dissenting.
DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE SIMON
Plaintiff's husband died as a result of work-related injuries while employed by defendant, Ryder Truck Lines, Inc. An Industrial Commission arbitrator decided that the decedent's death benefits should be distributed among the plaintiff (Carla Stewart) and the decedent's four children from a previous marriage who lived with their natural mother (Nancy Roberts). Plaintiff petitioned the Commission for review of the arbitrator's decision, and then remarried while the matter was still before the Commission on review and while the decedent's children were still receiving benefits. The Commission ruled that under this court's interpretation of section 7(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 48, par. 138.7(a)) in Interlake, Inc. v. Industrial Com. (1983), 95 Ill. 2d 181, plaintiff's remarriage did not affect her right to continuing benefits.
On appeal, the circuit court of Vermilion County ruled that section 7(a) should be construed to entitle plaintiff to receive only a lump sum equal to two years' compensation. The Industrial Commission Division of the appellate court reversed the circuit court, concluding that the plain and unambiguous words of the statute entitled plaintiff to continuing benefits since her remarriage occurred while the decedent's children were still receiving benefits. (135 Ill. App. 3d 661.) A majority of the Judges of the appellate court having joined a statement that this case involves a substantial question that warrants consideration by this court, we allowed defendant's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 315(a) (103 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)).
Section 7(a) of the Workers' Compensation Act provides in pertinent part:
"In the event of the remarriage of a widow or widower, where the decedent did not leave surviving any child or children who, at the time of such remarriage, are entitled to compensation benefits under this Act, the surviving spouse shall be paid a lump sum equal to 2 years compensation benefits and all further rights of such widow or widower shall be extinguished." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 48, par. 138.7(a).
Plaintiff contends that the decision in Interlake, Inc. v. Industrial Com. (1983), 95 Ill. 2d 181, holding that the statute provides for lifetime benefits to a widow if she remarries while any child of the decedent is entitled to benefits, is dispositive in this case. However, the widow in Interlake was the natural mother of the decedent's children and was responsible for their care and support, whereas the widow in the present case is the decedent's second wife and is not responsible for the decedent's children. Interlake therefore does not govern this case.
If we were to apply the holding in Interlake to this case, moreover, it would yield an absurd result. Such an application would appear to require that a first wife whose husband dies childless lose her widow's benefits if she remarries. A second wife, however, whose deceased husband is survived by children of a former marriage to whom the widow has no responsibility, would receive lifetime benefits if she remarries while any of the decedent's children is eligible for benefits, but lose her benefits if she remarries after the decedent's youngest child reaches 18. So anomalous a result demonstrates that at least a latent ambiguity exists in the statute.
The very fact that the remarriage provision of the statute is stated in the negative in itself creates an ambiguity. The provision does not state what is to occur in the event that a surviving spouse remarries if the decedent left children who are eligible for benefits at the time of such remarriage; it only states what is to occur if the decedent did not leave children who are eligible for benefits at the time of the surviving spouse's remarriage. In applying the negative language of the statute in Interlake the court decided that the lump-sum settlement provisions did not apply to a widow who remarried while her children, who were also the decedent's, were eligible for benefits. In this case it remains for us to decide, since the statute does not expressly state, what is to occur in the context of the facts presented here.
The cardinal rule of statutory construction, to which all other canons and rules are subordinate, is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. (People v. Boykin (1983), 94 Ill. 2d 138, 141.) In determining what that intent is, the court may properly consider not only the language used in a statute, but also the reason and necessity for the law, the evils sought to be remedied, and the purpose to be achieved. (City of Springfield v. Board of Election Commissioners (1985), 105 Ill. 2d 336, 341; Fitzsimmons v. Norgle (1984), 104 Ill. 2d 369, 373.) In construing a statute, the court must assume that the legislature did not intend an absurd result. People v. Steppan (1985), 105 Ill. 2d 310, 316.
The legislature apparently neglected to consider the consequences of the remarriage provision of section 7(a) in the context of facts such as those presented by this case. A reading of section 7(a) as a whole indicates that the primary evil the legislature intended to remedy was the hardship to families whose principal wage earner dies leaving a financially dependent spouse, especially when the surviving spouse is left with minor children to raise as a single parent. The statute presumes the surviving spouse's dependency upon the decedent, but where there are no dependent children, the surviving spouse's right to receive benefits terminates upon remarriage. The lump-sum provision of section ...