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Interiano-Lopez v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc.

Supreme Court of Nebraska

August 26, 2016

Wilmer Interiano-Lopez, appellant,
v.
Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., Self-Insured Employer, Appellee.

         1. Workers' Compensation: Appeal and Error. Pursuant to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-185 (Cum. Supp. 2014), an appellate court may modify, reverse, or set aside a Workers' Compensation Court decision only when (1) the compensation court acted without or in excess of its powers; (2) the judgment, order, or award was procured by fraud; (3) there is not sufficient competent evidence in the record to warrant the making of the order, judgment, or award; or (4) the findings of fact by the compensation court do not support the order or award.

         2. __: __. Determinations by a trial judge of the Workers' Compensation Court will not be disturbed on appeal unless they are contrary to law or depend on findings of fact which are clearly wrong in light of the evidence.

         3. Workers' Compensation: Statutes: Appeal and Error. The meaning of a statute is a question of law, and an appellate court is obligated in workers' compensation cases to make its own determinations as to questions of law.

         4. Statutes: Appeal and Error. Appellate courts give statutory language its plain and ordinary meaning and will not resort to interpretation to ascertain the meaning of statutory words which are plain, direct, and unambiguous.

         5. Workers' Compensation: Jurisdiction: Statutes. The Workers' Compensation Court, as a statutorily created court, has only such authority as has been conferred upon it by statute, and its power cannot extend beyond that expressed in statute.

         6. Workers' Compensation: Dismissal and Nonsuit. The right of a plaintiff to dismiss his or her workers' compensation action under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-177 (Cum. Supp. 2014) is not a matter of judicial grace or discretion.

         [294 Neb. 587] 7. __:__. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-177 (Cum. Supp. 2014) gives a workers' compensation plaintiff the explicit right to dismiss the cause without prejudice so long as the plaintiff is represented by counsel and requests dismissal before the final submission of the case to the court.

         8. Workers' Compensation: Rules of Evidence. The Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court is not bound by the usual common-law or statutory rules of evidence or by any technical or formal rules of procedure.

         9. Workers' Compensation: Legislature: Intent: Employer and Employee. The Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act was intended by the Legislature to simplify legal proceedings between injured employees and their employers.

         10. Workers' Compensation: Legislature: Courts. Changes in the workers' compensation laws, and in the public policies recognized in those laws, must emanate from the lawmaking powers of the Legislature and not from the courts.

         11. Pleadings: Dismissal and Nonsuit. An answer which merely alleges defenses to a petition and prays for the inverse of the relief sought by the petition does not survive after the petition is dismissed.

         12. Statutes. It is not within the province of a court to read a meaning into a statute that is not warranted by the language; neither is it within the province of a court to read anything plain, direct, or unambiguous out of a statute.

         13. Statutes: Legislature: Intent. In reading a statute, a court must determine and give effect to the purpose and intent of the Legislature as ascertained from the entire language of the statute considered in its plain, ordinary, and popular sense.

         14. ___: ___: ___ . Components of a series or collection of statutes pertaining to a certain subject matter are in pari materia and should be conjunctively considered and construed to determine the intent of the Legislature, so that different provisions are consistent, harmonious, and sensible.

         15. Jurisdiction. Parties cannot confer subject matter jurisdiction upon a judicial tribunal by either acquiescence or consent, nor may subject matter jurisdiction be created by waiver, estoppel, consent, or conduct of the parties.

         Appeal from the Workers' Compensation Court: Daniel R. Fridrich, Judge.

          Laura L. Pattermann, T.J. Pattermann, and Harry A. Hoch III, of Gallner & Pattermann, PC, for appellant.

         [294 Neb. 588] Joshua J. Schauer, of Perry, Guthery, Haase & Gessford, PC, L.L.O., for appellee.

          Heavican, C.J., Wright, Connelly, Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, and Kelch, JJ.

          Stacy, J.

NATURE OF CASE

         This is an appeal from a decision of the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court. Appellant, Wilmer Interiano-Lopez, filed a petition seeking benefits, and appellee, Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. (Tyson), filed an answer which included a purported counterclaim. Shortly thereafter, Interiano-Lopez moved to dismiss the action. The compensation court dismissed the petition but proceeded to trial on Tyson's counterclaim and found Interiano-Lopez had failed to prove a workplace injury. Interiano-Lopez appeals. Because we conclude the compensation court acted without authority and in excess of its powers by proceeding to trial rather than dismissing the cause, we vacate the judgment of the court and remand the cause with directions to dismiss.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         In 2013, Interiano-Lopez was living in Sioux City, Iowa, and working for Tyson at a meatpacking plant in Dakota City, Nebraska. One of his jobs involved cutting the stomach or "paunch" of cows to allow the contents to fall out as they were processed on the "dump paunch line."

         On October 7, 2013, Interiano-Lopez was working with a trainee. According to Interiano-Lopez, the trainee was hanging meat incorrectly and it was falling off the hooks as it passed down the dump paunch line. Interiano-Lopez had to lift and place the meat back on the hooks to complete his work, and his hands and arms became increasingly fatigued. At one point, a paunch fell from the hook and hit Interiano-Lopez on the right shoulder. He felt a pop in his shoulder and began experiencing severe pain and loss of strength in his arm. Interiano-Lopez [294 Neb. 589] was taken to the plant infirmary and thereafter to a hospital emergency room. He was diagnosed with a shoulder separation and was referred for orthopedic evaluation and treatment.

         In March 2014, Interiano-Lopez, through counsel, filed a petition in the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court seeking a determination of the rights and liabilities of the parties regarding the accident of October 7, 2013. Interiano-Lopez sought to be declared permanently and totally disabled or, in the alternative, to be awarded temporary total disability benefits, ongoing medical benefits, and vocational rehabilitation training.

         In April 2014, Tyson filed an answer which included what it characterizes as a counterclaim. Tyson's answer denied liability, alleged Interiano-Lopez' physical problems were caused by a preexisting condition, and alleged Interiano-Lopez had "received some workers' compensation benefits for which [Tyson] is entitled to a credit." In its counterclaim, Tyson reiterated allegations set forth in the answer and included a request that "the Court determine [Tyson's] liabilities, if any, and rights with respect to the alleged October 7, 2013 accident at issue in this matter."

         Two weeks after Tyson filed its answer, the attorney for Interiano-Lopez filed a motion to dismiss the action without prejudice. The court subsequently entered an order of dismissal which provided "[Interiano-Lopez'] Petition is dismissed without prejudice." After the dismissal was entered, Interiano-Lopez filed a claim with the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner regarding the October 7, 2013, injury. The record indicates both parties considered Iowa's workers' compensation law regarding shoulder injuries to be more favorable to Interiano-Lopez than Nebraska's law.

         Despite the dismissal, Tyson proceeded with discovery on its counterclaim and, when Interiano-Lopez did not answer the discovery, Tyson filed a motion to compel in the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court. Interiano-Lopez opposed the motion to compel, arguing the Nebraska action had been [294 Neb. 590] dismissed without prejudice and the discovery being sought did not pertain to any issues being litigated in Nebraska. The Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court sustained Tyson's motion to compel and ordered Interiano-Lopez to respond to the discovery, adding that the failure to comply would subject him to possible sanctions. Interiano-Lopez subsequently answered Tyson's discovery. Tyson was dissatisfied with the responses and filed a second motion to compel, which the court also sustained, again referencing the possibility of sanctions for noncompliance.

         In July 2014, the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Court issued notice that "a trial in the above cause" was set for October 29, 2014. The court subsequently continued trial to January 12, 2015, and ordered the parties to exchange witness and exhibit lists and file pretrial statements.

         In December 2014, Interiano-Lopez filed a motion seeking to stay the Nebraska proceedings pending resolution of the Iowa proceedings. Interiano-Lopez again argued that his motion to dismiss without prejudice had been granted by the court and also alleged:

         The remaining proceedings in this action are for a claim by [Tyson] for repayment of overpaid benefits. This can only be determined once Iowa has determined if the injury was work related and the appropriate benefits to be paid to . . . Interiano-Lopez. The action here is for the same accident and injury pending in Iowa and . . . justice would dictate these proceedings be stayed without prejudice, pending resolution of the Iowa action.

         Tyson resisted the motion to stay, alleging:

Tyson is entitled to a determination of [Interiano-Lopez'] rights and liabilities pursuant to the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act [and Interiano-Lopez] should not be allowed to claim prejudice or controversy by subsequently initiating proceedings in the state of Iowa in an attempt to disgorge Tyson of its right to a determination under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act.

         [294 Neb. 591] The Nebraska court treated Interiano-Lopez' motion to stay as a motion to continue trial and granted it. Tyson then filed a motion to ...


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