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Schmidt v. Milburn Brothers Inc.

April 30, 1998

HERBERT R. SCHMIDT AND STELLETTE SCHMIDT, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
MILBURN BROTHERS, INC. AND ERIC AGASE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY. HONORABLE SOPHIA H. HALL, JUDGE PRESIDING.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wolfson delivered the opinion of the court:

The issue in this case is whether Herbert R. Schmidt's personal injury action is barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers' Compensation Act.

To answer the question we are required to determine whether two separate and independent corporations should be regarded as joint employers, or whether the two corporations were engaged in a joint enterprise at the time Schmidt was injured. If the answer to either one of these questions is yes, Schmidt's lawsuit cannot proceed. Because we believe these are issues that should be decided by the trier of fact, we reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the defendants and remand this cause for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

On June 17, 1992, Herbert R. Schmidt (Schmidt), who was employed by Plote, Inc. (Plote), was driving a tractor-trailer which displayed Plote identifying marks. At the intersection of Route 72 and Bartlett Road in Barrington, Illinois, the traffic light was not working due to stormy weather. Schmidt stopped, then proceeded through the intersection. As he did so, Schmidt's vehicle was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer driven by Eric Agase (Agase). Agase was employed by Milburn Brothers Inc. (Milburn) and the truck he was driving bore identifying marks indicating it belonged to Milburn.

As a result of the collision, Schmidt's head hit the windshield and he sustained injury to his back and neck. He filed a workers' compensation claim with Plote and received $102,000 in temporary disability benefits and more than $43,000 in medical benefits, as well as a lump sum settlement award in excess of $81,000.

On April 16, 1993, Schmidt and his wife, Stellette, filed a negligence action against Milburn and Agase, seeking recovery for damages suffered as a result of the June 17, 1992, collision.

On December 18, 1996, after discovery had been completed, Milburn and Agase (defendants) filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to section 2-1005 of the Code of Civil Procedure. See 735 ILCS 5/2-1005 (West 1996). In the motion defendants contended Plote and Milburn were two of five individual companies which made up a single enterprise --- the "Plote companies family." This Plote family of companies, said defendants, shared the same centralized offices; the trucks owned by the companies were dispatched from the same facility yard; the same mechanics, working at the facility yard, repaired and maintained all of the Plote Companies' trucks; and all truck drivers, regardless of the company that paid them, were directed and controlled by the same managerial staff. Based on these and other factors, defendants contended Schmidt and Agase were joint employees of both Plote and Milburn and, for this reason, the exclusive remedy provision in the Workers' Compensation Act (WCA or Act) barred plaintiffs from recovering from Milburn or Agase in the civil negligence action.

On March 10, 1997, the trial court entered an order granting defendants summary judgment. The order does not say why the court granted summary judgment. Though a hearing was held on the motion, no transcript of this hearing is included in the record. We do not know the trial court's reason for granting summary judgment in defendants' favor.

Schmidt and his wife appeal. The only issue is whether the trial court wrongly determined plaintiffs' claims against Milburn and Agase are barred by the exclusive remedy provision in the WCA.

Standard of Review

An appellate court reviews the grant of summary judgment de novo. Barraza v. Tootsie Roll Industries, Inc., --- Ill. App. 3d ---, 690 N.E.2d 612 (1997). When no genuine issue of fact is present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. Guerino v. Depot Place Partnership, 273 Ill. App. 3d 27, 652 N.E.2d 410 (1995). Summary judgment should not be granted if reasonable persons could draw divergent inferences from undisputed facts. Pyne v. Witner, 129 Ill. 2d 351, 358, 543 N.E.2d 1304 (1989). Summary judgment is a drastic means of disposing of litigation and should be allowed only when the moving party's right to judgment is clear and free from doubt. Zekman v. Direct American Marketers, Inc., 286 Ill. App. 3d 462, 675 N.E.2d 994 (1997); Ralls v. Village of Glendale Heights, 233 Ill. App. 3d 147, 151, 598 N.E.2d 337 (1992).

DECISION

Defendants advance two arguments in support of their claim that the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers' Compensation Act, 820 ILCS 305/1(a)(4) (West 1996), bars the Schmidts' lawsuit. They say either contention is sufficient to support summary judgment.

First, defendants contend Plote and Milburn, though legally separate companies, are part of a "single enterprise" -- the "Plote family of companies." Thus, Schmidt and Agase were co-workers of this single enterprise. Put another way, Milburn and Plote were joint employers of Schmidt and Agase.

Second, defendants contend both Schmidt and Agase were working for Plote/Milburn joint ventures at the time of the accident, thus barring this negligence action because the liability for Milburn must be, as a matter of law, the same as it is for Plote.

Plaintiffs, of course, disagree with both arguments. Despite the commonalities between the two companies, say plaintiffs, the legal distinction created by the separate corporate structures of Plote, Inc. and Milburn Bros., Inc. should bar Milburn from claiming immunity under the WCA. Plaintiffs also reject the "joint venture" argument because ...


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