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10/16/97 KEITH COUNTRYMAN v. INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION

October 16, 1997

KEITH COUNTRYMAN, APPELLEE,
v.
THE INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION ET AL. (FDL FOODS, INC., APPELLANT).



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Ogle County. Honorable John B. Roe, Judge Presiding.

Released for Publication November 14, 1997.

The Honorable Justice Rakowski delivered the opinion of the court. McCullough, P.j., and Colwell, Holdridge, and Goldenhersh, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rakowski

The Honorable Justice RAKOWSKI delivered the opinion of the court:

Claimant Keith Countryman and his employer FDL Foods, Inc. entered into a settlement agreement on December 15, 1992, which provided for settlement of certain workers' compensation claims. The arbitrator found that the contract released claimant's claims against employer for all accidental injuries incurred through the settlement date. The Industrial Commission (Commission) affirmed. The circuit court reversed, holding that the settlement agreement did not preclude claimant from filing an additional claim for an alleged work-related back injury of August 15, 1991. The issue on appeal is whether the settlement agreement is a general release of all claims incurred through December 15, 1992, including the back injury claim, or a limited release of just those claims specifically contained in the agreement. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

FACTS

The December 15, 1992, settlement agreement lists three distinct accident dates of May 2, 1988, March 26, 1991, and April 1, 1992. It refers to the location of the accidents as Rochelle, Illinois, and describes the periods in which claimant was temporarily totally disabled as being from June 1 to June 25, 1989, and March 26 to June 2, 1991. The agreement describes the nature of claimant's injury as bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome and elbow neuritis and states that claimant's hands, wrists, and elbows were affected by alleged repetitive motion.

The terms of settlement require employer to pay claimant $33,150 in full and final settlement of any and all workers' compensation claims "for all accidental injuries allegedly incurred as described herein and including any and all results or developments, fatal or non-fatal, allegedly resulting from such accidental injuries." The contract further provides that "settlement is based on [claimant's] present condition and specifically includes any other accident, injury, aggravation or onset of symptoms to the date of this settlement."

The settlement represents 25 % loss of each arm less temporary total disability (TTD) benefits, group insurance payments, and unpaid medical expenses. Above the signature line, the contract states that claimant understands that by settling "this claim" he is giving up the right to any further medical treatment for the results of "this incident" and the right to additional benefits if his condition worsens as a result of "this incident."

After execution of the contract on December 15, 1992, claimant filed an adjustment of claim pursuant to the Workers' Compensation Act (the Act) (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1994)) for back injuries allegedly sustained on August 15, 1991, at claimant's place of employment in Rochelle, Illinois. Claimant gave employer oral notice of this incident and employer admits that at the time of settlement it knew of the potential claim for back injuries. Employer moved to dismiss the claim on the basis that the settlement contract released all accident claims through the date of settlement. The arbitrator dismissed claimant's application based on the contract release and the Commission affirmed. The circuit court reversed, holding that the release did not preclude claimant from filing an additional claim for the separate back injury.

ANALYSIS

Whether a contract is ambiguous or clear is a question of law and a reviewing court may independently construe the contract unrestrained by the trial court's interpretation. Quake Construction, Inc. v. American Airlines, Inc., 141 Ill. 2d 281, 288, 152 Ill. Dec. 308, 565 N.E.2d 990 (1990); USG Corp. v. Sterling Plumbing Group, Inc., 247 Ill. App. 3d 316, 318, 186 Ill. Dec. 830, 617 N.E.2d 69 (1993). Where the contract is clear, its interpretation is a question of law to be determined only from the terms of the contract itself. Quake Construction, Inc., 141 Ill. 2d at 288; United Equitable Insurance Co. v. Reinsurance Co. of America, Inc., 157 Ill. App. 3d 724, 728-29, 109 Ill. Dec. 846, 510 N.E.2d 914 (1987). Where the contract is ambiguous, its interpretation is generally a question of fact subject to rules of contract construction and parol evidence. Farm Credit Bank v. Whitlock, 144 Ill. 2d 440, 447, 163 Ill. Dec. 510, 581 N.E.2d 664 (1991); UIDC Management, Inc. v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 141 Ill. App. 3d 227, 230, 95 Ill. Dec. 691, 490 N.E.2d 164 (1986); Sol K. Graff & Sons v. Leopold, 92 Ill. App. 3d 769, 771, 48 Ill. Dec. 244, 416 N.E.2d 275 (1981). A contract is ambiguous where the language employed is susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning or obscure in meaning through indefiniteness of expression. Meyer v. Marilyn Miglin, Inc., 273 Ill. App. 3d 882, 888, 210 Ill. Dec. 257, 652 N.E.2d 1233 (1995).

We conclude that the contract at bar is ambiguous because it contains conflicting release provisions that express different intentions. The first page of the settlement agreement lists three specific claims relating to injuries to claimant's arms, wrists, and elbows. It lists specific accident dates and describes the nature of the claimant's injury as bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome and elbow neuritis. The second page of the agreement repeatedly refers to settlement for "this incident" and requires employer to pay claimant $33,150 in full and final settlement of any and all claims for all accidental injuries allegedly incurred "as described herein," including any and all results or developments "allegedly resulting from such accidental injuries." The settlement agreement also contains general and sweeping language that provides settlement is based on claimant's present condition and includes any other accident, injury, aggravation, or onset of symptoms to the date of settlement. This general language is inconsistent and conflicts with the specific language. Such conflict renders the contract ambiguous as a matter of law.

Where there is an ambiguity and if, after considering the contract language in light of parol evidence and rules of construction, doubt still remains as to the meaning of the contract, then the question of interpretation must be left to the trier of fact. Schneider v. Neubert, 308 Ill. 40, 43, 139 N.E. 84 (1923); United Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. v. Elder, 89 Ill. App. 3d 918, 921, 45 Ill. Dec. 279, 412 N.E.2d 630 (1980). If, however, the contract is susceptible to only one meaning when considered in light of parol evidence and rules of construction, the court may interpret the contract for itself. Schneider, 308 Ill. at 43-44; Vulcan Materials Co. v. Holzhauer, 234 Ill. App. 3d 444, 454, 174 Ill. Dec. 665, 599 ...


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