Smothers v. Gresham Transfer, Inc.
332 Or. 83 (2001)

Facts/History:

  • Plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim for his lung condition.
    • As a technician for a trucking company, he was frequently exposed to sulfuric, hydrochloric, and hydrofluoric acid mist and fumes that were used to clean the trucks.
  • The company’s insurer denied the claim and an administrative law judge (ALJ) upheld the denial.
    • The ALJ found that the plaintiff failed to prove that his work exposure was the major contributing cause of his lung disorder.
  • He then tried to bring a negligence action against his employer, but the trial court dismissed his complaint because Oregon’s workers’ compensation was the exclusive remedy for work-related injuries, whether or not the claim is compensable.
  • Plaintiff then argued that provisions in workers’ compensation statute violated Article I, section 10 of the Oregon Constitution (the remedy clause).
    • The clause provides that “every man shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation.”

Issue:
Whether the exclusive remedy provisions of [Oregon’s workers’ compensation statute] are unconstitutional under the remedy clause to the extent that there now is a category of workers who have been injured at work but receive no compensation benefits, because they cannot prove that the work-related incident was the major contributing cause of their injury or disease.

Holding:
Yes. Case reversed. P Should’ve been allowed to proceed with his negligence action.

Reasoning:

  • (1) “In analyzing a claim under the remedy clause, the first question is whether the plaintiff has alleged an injury to one of the absolute rights that Article I, section 10 protects. Stated differently, when the drafters wrote the Oregon Constitution in 1857, did the common law of Oregon recognize a cause of action for the alleged injury?”
    • The court answered this in the affirmative – negligence has long been recognized, and a worker would’ve had a cause of action for his employer’s failure to provide a safe workplace and warn of dangerous conditions.
  • (2) “If the answer to that question is yes, and if the legislature has abolished the common-law cause of action for injury to rights that are protected by the remedy clause, then the second question is whether it has provided a constitutionally adequate substitute remedy for the common-law cause of action for that injury.”
    • Here, the court declared the substitute remedy (i.e., the provision of the workers’ comp law) inadequate.
    • When the workers’ compensation law was adopted, work-related incidents only needed to be a “contributing cause” of the injury. Likewise, common law negligence simply required any injury. However, the workers’ comp law now requires that a work-related incident be the “major contributing cause” of the injury.
    • “Therefore, workers’ compensation law no longer provides a remedy for some wrongs or harms occurring in the workplace for which a common-law negligence cause of action had existed when the drafters wrote the Oregon Constitution in 1857.”

Rule: If a workers’ compensation claim for an alleged injury to a right that is protected by the remedy clause is denied because the worker has failed to prove that the work-related incident was the major, rather than merely a contributing, cause of the injury, then the exclusive remedy provisions of ORS 656.018 (1995) are unconstitutional under the remedy clause, because they leave the worker with no process through which to seek redress for an injury for which a cause of action existed at common law.