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Meintsma v. Loram Maintenance of Way

July 29, 2004

JEREMY MEINTSMA, APPELLANT,
v.
LORAM MAINTENANCE OF WAY, INC., RESPONDENT, RICHARD LEE MENDEZ AND STEVEN WAYNE BACHLER, RESPONDENTS, JAMES VALENTA, RESPONDENT, ERIC LEON HAVISTO, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, AND LORAM MAINTENANCE OF WAY, INC., CROSS-CLAIM PLAINTIFF,
v.
DENNIS DARNELL RAMSEY, ET AL., CROSS-CLAIM DEFENDANTS, AND LORAM MAINTENANCE OF WAY, INC., THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STEELWORKERS OF AMERICA, LOCAL 2002, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The Workers' Compensation Act is the employee's exclusive remedy against his employer because, on the facts presented, neither the assault exception nor the intentional injury exception apply to the employer's conduct.

Whether the conduct here satisfies the co-employee exception to the Workers' Compensation Act is a question of fact that precludes summary judgment.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Page, Justice.

OPINION

This case arises out of a "birthday spanking" given to appellant Jeremy Meintsma*fn1 by five co-employees with a two-by-four fashioned into a paddle at his place of employment, Loram Maintenance of Way, on May 1, 2001. Meintsma sued Loram and the co-employees individually, alleging claims of assault and battery, aiding and abetting assault and battery, respondeat superior, negligent hiring, negligent supervision, negligent retention, and constructive discharge, as well as a claim for punitive damages. According to Meintsma, the birthday spanking resulted in injuries to his buttocks, wrists, and elbow. Loram and the employees moved for summary judgment, arguing that Meintsma's exclusive remedy was under the Workers' Compensation Act (WCA). The district court granted summary judgment to Loram, but denied the employees' motion. With respect to Loram, the district court found that Meintsma's injuries arose out of his employment and did not come within either the WCA's assault or intentional injury exceptions. With respect to the employees, the court concluded that because Meintsma's primary claim was for battery, an intentional tort, the WCA's exception for injuries intentionally caused by co-employees applied. Both Meintsma and the employees appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed with respect to Loram. With respect to the employees, the court of appeals reversed, concluding that the WCA provided the exclusive remedy for Meintsma's injuries because there was no evidence that those injuries were intentionally caused by the employees. The issue we must decide is whether the WCA provides the exclusive remedy for Meintsma's claims against Loram and the employees.

Meintsma began working at Loram in August of 2000. There was a tradition at Loram of union employees giving other union employees birthday spankings. According to one of the defendants, these spankings were taking place when he started working at Loram in 1985. The spankings occurred on Loram's premises either during or immediately after work hours. Typically, a small group of employees would surround the employee celebrating his birthday, wrestle him to the ground, and hit him on the buttocks. Oftentimes they struck the employee with a wooden paddle that had been fashioned at Loram. The record indicates that not every employee received a birthday spanking and that on at least one occasion a spanking occurred for an event other than a birthday. Before Meintsma's spanking, no employee had complained to Loram about being injured as a result of a spanking.

Some members of Loram's management were aware of the spanking practice, and a manager participated in at least one spanking. Indeed, according to Meintsma, sometime before his spanking he approached a supervisor and asked what would happen "when these guys tr[y] to get me on my birthday if I defend myself." Meintsma also claims that on the day he was spanked he approached a supervisor and indicated that he did not want to be spanked.

Meintsma's spanking occurred a few days after his birthday when a group of his co-employees grabbed him from behind, wrestled him off his stool and onto the concrete floor, and then spanked him with a wooden paddle fashioned from a two-by-four. The manner and number of times Meintsma was spanked is disputed. According to Meintsma, after the spanking, he spit blood on the floor, got up and shook hands with the individuals who spanked him, went to the washroom, and cleaned up with the help of one of the co-employees.

That evening Meintsma went to the emergency room. There, the doctor found that Meintsma had contusions to his back, abrasions to his left arm, muscle spasms in his lower back, and a superficial cut on his left wrist. Upon discharge, Meintsma was given pain medication and told not to go to work for the rest of the week. The emergency room doctor reported the incident to the Wright County Sheriff. Meintsma also reported the incident to the police. Ultimately, the individuals who participated in the birthday spanking were charged with fifth-degree assault and disorderly conduct. They eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and received a stay of imposition of sentence for one year.

The day after the spanking, Meintsma notified Loram of his injuries and Loram filed a first report of injury form. Loram's workers' compensation insurance carrier initially accepted liability, but, upon learning that criminal charges had been filed, the insurer denied coverage based on its determination that Meintsma's injuries were the result of an intentional assault and therefore fell outside of the WCA. Loram also terminated the employees involved in the spankings. The union filed a grievance on behalf of those employees and eventually two of the employees were reinstated.*fn2

When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we view "the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was rendered." Gunderson v. Harrington, 632 N.W.2d 695, 701 (Minn. 2001). We consider "whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law." Id. Both "[t]he interpretation of a statute and the determination of whether a genuine issue of material fact exists are subject to de novo review." Id. We draw all factual inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. O'Malley v. Ulland Bros., 549 N.W.2d 889, 897 (Minn. 1998).

Minnesota's workers' compensation system "is based on a mutual renunciation of common law rights and defenses by employers and employees alike." Minn. Stat. § 176.001 (2002). Employers "are liable to pay compensation in every case of personal injury * * * of an employee arising out of and in the course of employment without regard to the question of negligence." Minn. Stat. § 176.021, subd. 1 (2002); see also Foley v. Honeywell, Inc., 488 N.W.2d 268, 271 (Minn. 1992). The employer's liability to pay compensation "is exclusive and in place of any other liability." Minn. Stat. ยง 176.031 (2002). The exclusive remedy provision "is part of the quid pro quo of the workers' compensation scheme in which the employer assumes liability for work-related ...


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