ORDER DISMISSING PETITION WITHOUT PREJUDICE
Self-insured employer filed petition for determination of
what, if any, benefits are due claimant regarding several
prior industrial accidents. Noting the petition was in the
nature of a "preemptive strike," the Court issued
an order to show cause why the petition should not be
dismissed. Claimant filed a brief requesting dismissal,
arguing that an injured worker has the right to request
judicial determination of his claim when he is financially,
emotionally, and medically prepared to do so.
The Workers' Compensation Court does not permit insurers
or self-insured employers to use principles of declaratory
judgment to determine the timing of litigation of a
worker's potential entitlement to benefits under the
Workers' Compensation or Occupational Disease Acts. The
pleadings in this case, and affidavit filed by claimant's
counsel, indicate that the employer attempted to persuade
claimant to settle all his claims so it could close its
files, but claimant resisted. Adjudication may never be
necessary on claimant's claims. The insurer cannot use
declaratory judgment procedure to force claimant to settle or
litigate just so it can close its files.
Declaratory Judgment: Pre-emptive Strikes.
Where adjudication may never be necessary concerning
entitlement to benefits, the insurer cannot use a pre-emptive
strike to force claimant to settle or litigate just so it can
close its files.
Jurisdiction: Pre-emptive Strikes. Where
adjudication may never be necessary concerning entitlement to
benefits, the insurer cannot use a pre-emptive strike to
force claimant to settle or litigate just so it can close its
Jurisdiction: Ripeness. Where adjudication
may never be necessary concerning entitlement to benefits,
the insurer cannot use a pre-emptive strike to force claimant
to settle or litigate just so it can close its files.
DISMISSING PETITION WITHOUT PREJUDICE
petition in this case was filed by a self-insured employer,
Champion International Corporation (Champion), seeking a
determination as to what, if any, benefits may be due
claimant with respect to several prior industrial accidents.
Noting that "[t]he petition is in the nature of a
preemptive strike and raises a serious question in the
Court's mind as to its appropriateness since the
respondent may or may not ever pursue an action for further
benefits," the Court issued an order to show cause why
the petition should not be dismissed. (ORDER VACATING
SCHEDULING ORDER AND TO SHOW cause (April 27, 1995).)
Champion responded by filing a consolidated reply to
court's orders to show cause. Respondent/claimant, John
Bernhard (claimant), responded by filing a MOTION to dismiss
and a supporting brief. Claimant's motion is granted and
Champion's petition is dismissed without prejudice.
was employed by Champion for a number of years, during which
time he suffered at least eleven (11) separate injuries over
an eleven (11) year period between 1976 and 1987. Champion
alleges that some of the claims may be time-barred and that
all were minor in nature and did not result in any wage loss
benefits. It alleges that as a result of the injuries
claimant might have an entitlement to some disability
benefits. Champion attempted to resolve outstanding claims
but was unable to do so. In other words, Champion attempted
to persuade claimant to settle all his claims so it could
close its files, but failed. Champion now requests the Court
determine what benefits are due to claimant, (petition for
motion to dismiss, claimant, through his attorney, makes it
clear that he does not wish to pursue his claims, at least at
this time, and specifically requests that the petition be
dismissed. His brief in support of motion to dismiss verifies
that Champion initiated the attempt to settle and close out
his old claims. (The facts set forth in the brief are
verified by an affidavit of rex palmer.) He notes that
"the purpose of Workers' Compensation statutes is
the protection of the interests of the injured worker"
Permitting an insurer to dictate the timing of the judicial
determination of all possible disability benefits is an
anathema to this principle. At the very least, this principle
must mean that an injured worker has the right to make a
request for judicial determination of his claim when he is
financially, emotionally, and medically prepared to do so
IN SUPPORT OF MOTION TO DISMISS at 5.)
cause of action in this case belongs to the claimant, not to
the insurer. It is he who, under the Workers'
Compensation Act, may be entitled to benefits for
work-related injuries. Thus, the insurer's petition is
one for declaratory judgment. "The purpose of
declaratory relief is to liquidate uncertainties and
controversies which might result in future
litigation and to adjudicate rights of parties who
have not otherwise been given an opportunity to have those
rights determined." In re Dewar, 169 Mont. 437,
444, 548 P.2d 155 (1976) (emphasis added). Courts are not
required to entertain every action for declaratory judgment.
Even though all of the necessary elements of jurisdiction
exist, the Court may, in its sound discretion, dismiss the
action. Brisendine v. Montana Department of
Commerce, 253 Mont. 361, 364, 833 P.2d 1019 (1992).
declaratory judgment was never intended "to provide a
substitute for other regular actions." In re
Dewar, 169 Mont, at 444. Its primary purpose is "to
determine the meaning of a law or a contract and to
adjudicate the rights of the parties therein, but not to
determine controversial issues of fact" Raynes v.
City of Great Falls,215 Mont. 114, 121, 696 P.2d 423
(1985); accord Remington v. Department of
Corrections,255 Mont. 480, 483, 844 P.2d 50 (1992). The
Montana Supreme Court has adopted the general rule from
C.J.S. on declaratory judgments in State ex rel.
Industrial Ind Co. v. District Court,169 Mont. 10, 14,
544 P.2d 438 (1975). It said, '"ordinarily a court
will refuse a declaratory judgment which can be made only
after a judicial investigation of disputed facts, ...