Appeal from the Circuit Court of Gallatin County. No. 98-MR-1 Honorable Thomas H. Sutton, Judge, presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Holdridge
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS
Claimant, Donald Mayhew, filed a claim pursuant to the Illinois Workers' Occupational Diseases Act (the OD Act) (820 ILCS 310/1 et seq. (West 1992)), seeking compensation for shortness of breath and exercise intolerance that he suffered as a result of 28 years of inhalation of coal dust, rock dust, fumes, and vapors, while employed by Peabody Coal Company (the employer). The employer filed a motion to dismiss the claim based on a prior settlement agreement (agreement). The arbitrator dismissed the claim as barred by this agreement. The Illinois Industrial Commission (the Commission) affirmed and adopted the arbitrator's decision. After a change of venue from Williamson County, the circuit court of Gallatin County confirmed the Commission's decision. For the following reasons, we affirm.
In May 1992, claimant filed an application for adjustment of claim for a back injury that he sustained on June 1, 1990, while employed by the employer.
In May 1994, claimant executed an agreement which included a release located in "Attachment `A'" to that agreement and which stated in pertinent part that the agreement was in complete settlement of: "any and all claims *** on account of the accident on or about 6/1/90 or any other claimed specific accidents or allegations of repetitive trauma or exposure to noise or materials during employment at Peabody *** and all known and unknown injuries which allegedly resulted from any said specific accident, claims of repetitive trauma, and/or claims of exposure to noise or materials during employment with Peabody ***. It is the intent of the parties to purchase the peace with regard to any and all claims which have been or could be brought pursuant to either the Illinois Worker's [sic] Compensation or Illinois Occupational Diseases Acts regarding Donald L. Mayhew and the parties intent [sic] for this provision of the contract to be enforced."
In June 1994, claimant was paid $100,000 for a strained back and for the above-mentioned release.
In July 1995, claimant filed his present claim under the OD Act for shortness of breath and exercise intolerance due to the inhalation of coal dust, rock dust, fumes, and vapors, which affected his lungs and/or heart. The date of his last exposure was to have been October 27, 1992. The employer filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the release encompassed in the agreement barred his claim.
At hearing, the arbitrator rejected claimant's Exhibit 3, which was a May 9, 1994, letter written by one of his lawyers concerning prior settlement negotiations. The arbitrator found that the terms of the agreement and release were clear and unambiguous and barred claimant's claim. Specifically, the arbitrator found that: (1) the words "exposure to materials" encompassed the claimed exposure by inhalation of coal dust, rock dust, fumes, and vapors; and (2) claims under the OD Act were clearly contemplated by the parties, noting that the release indicated the parties intended that the provision covering OD claims would be enforced between them. In dismissing claimant's claim, the arbitrator held: "The date of last exposure on the Occupational Disease claim (10/27/92) was nearly a year and a half prior to the date of his [claimant's] execution of the prior Settlement Contract on 5/13/94. Thus Petitioner knew or should have known of his occupational exposure *** and knew or should have known of his claimed injury *** when he executed the Settlement Contract ***."
The Commission affirmed and adopted the arbitrator's decision, and after a change of venue from Williamson County, the circuit court of Gallatin County confirmed the Commission's decision.
Whether a settlement agreement is clear or ambiguous is a question of law to be determined by the terms of the agreement itself. Countryman v. Industrial Comm'n, 292 Ill. App. 3d 738, 741 (1997). When an issue on appeal involves a question of law, the reviewing court is not obligated to defer to the Commission's decision. Butler Manufacturing Co. v. Industrial Comm'n, 85 Ill. 2d 213, 216 (1981). When an issue on appeal involves a question of fact, the Commission's decision will be upheld unless it is against the manifest weight of the evidence, i.e., unless the opposite Conclusion is clearly apparent. Paganelis v. Industrial Comm'n, 132 Ill. 2d 468, 484 (1989).
Claimant first contends on appeal that the Commission erred in concluding that the agreement and release barred his claim. He asserts that there was no evidence in the record to support this Conclusion, and that the Commission erred in finding that he knew or should have known of his occupational disease at the time he entered into the agreement.
As to a lack of evidence, the hearing on the employer's motion to dismiss was continued to allow claimant to provide testimonial evidence regarding his actual knowledge at the time he signed the agreement. Claimant failed to put forth any such evidence.
Documentary evidence, however, did exist and established the following history of events. On May 14, 1994, claimant executed an agreement that contained a release found in "Attachment `A'." In June 1994, claimant was paid $100,000 for a strained back and for the release that encompassed "all known and unknown injuries which allegedly resulted from any said specific accident, claims of repetitive trauma, and/or claims of exposure to noise or materials during employment with Peabody ***."
In July 1995, claimant filed a claim under the OD Act and alleged an injury of shortness of breath and exercise intolerance due to exposure to inhalation of coal dust, rock dust, fumes, and vapors for a period in excess of 28 years. Those 28 years ended two years prior to the signing of the ...