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Taylor v. Reliance Well Service, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

May 23, 2017

BERTHA M. TAYLOR, DAVID D. BUSHA, AND STEVEN C. TAYLOR, HEIRS OF THOMAS E. TAYLOR, DECEASED APPELLANTS
v.
RELIANCE WELL SERVICE, INC. AND LIBERTY INSURANCE CORPORATION APPELLEES

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/15/2016

         MISSISSIPPI WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: LAMPTON O'NEAL WILLIAMS JR. CORY MORRIS WILLIAMS

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEES: GINGER MOORE ROBEY

          BEFORE IRVING, P.J., FAIR AND WILSON, JJ.

          WILSON, J.

         ¶1. The claimant and the employer/carrier settled this workers' compensation dispute and submitted a joint application for approval of the settlement to the Workers' Compensation Commission. After the Commission received the application but before it approved the settlement, the claimant died. Two days later, the Commission approved the settlement, unaware that the claimant had passed away. The employer/carrier then moved to vacate the Commission's prior order approving the settlement, arguing that the order was based on a mistake of fact-that the claimant was still alive-and should be set aside. The Commission agreed and vacated its prior order approving the settlement.

         ¶2. For the reasons explained in more detail below, we conclude that the Commission erred as a matter of law. Under the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Law, the settlement agreement between the claimant and the employer/carrier was due to be approved by the Commission unless the Commission found that it was not in the best interest of the injured worker. An injured worker's non-work-related death, after a settlement agreement has already been signed and presented to the Commission for approval, does not implicate this statutory basis for disapproving a settlement. Accordingly, there was no material mistake of fact that justified setting aside the Commission's prior order approving the settlement. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. On March 3, 2014, Thomas Taylor was in the scope and course of his employment at Reliance Well Service Inc., when a pipe fell and struck him in the head and neck. Taylor sustained compensable injuries to his shoulder, neck, and back. After Taylor reached maximum medical improvement, he was assessed permanent work restrictions and an impairment rating as to his body as a whole.

         ¶4. On May 3, 2016, Taylor and Reliance Well[1] agreed to settle Taylor's claim for a total sum of $71, 659.43[2] On May 6, counsel for Reliance Well sent counsel for Taylor signed settlement documents, including an application to the Commission for approval of the settlement. Taylor countersigned the application, and it was delivered to the Commission on May 13. On May 16, Taylor died. On May 18, the Commission approved the settlement, unaware that Taylor had passed away. On May 20, counsel for Reliance Well emailed the Commission to inquire whether the settlement had been approved. Counsel's email stated that she had just learned that Taylor had died on May 16.

         ¶5. On June 6, 2016, Reliance Well filed a motion to vacate the Commission's order approving the settlement. Reliance Well made two arguments: First, "[b]ecause the benefits paid to [Taylor] in the settlement [were] for permanent disability benefits, and because [Taylor] was in fact deceased at the time the [o]rder approving the settlement was entered, the settlement should be set aside, and the [o]rder vacated as a matter of law." Reliance Well characterized this as a "material mistake of fact." Reliance Well further argued that such benefits were for the benefit of Taylor only and were not owed to his estate. Second, Reliance Well alleged that the settlement should be set aside based on a "misrepresentation of fact." Specifically, Reliance Well alleged that, in the course of settlement discussions, Taylor represented that he would be unable to earn more than minimum wages due to his injuries and work restrictions, but reports of his death indicated that he was killed while working on the decommissioning of a cell phone tower.

         ¶6. In response, Taylor's heirs[3] argued that his death was not a basis for setting aside the settlement. They also submitted an affidavit from Taylor's supervisor at the job site on the date of his death. The supervisor stated that he was familiar with Taylor's work restrictions and that, at the time of his death, Taylor was employed only on a limited and irregular basis "when jobs were available within his restrictions."[4]

         ¶7. On July 15, 2016, pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 71-3-53 (Rev. 2011), the Commission entered an order setting aside its prior order approving the settlement. The Commission found that its prior order should be set aside because it "was issued based upon a mistake of fact that [Taylor] was still alive." The Commission further stated that the settlement was for future disability ...


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