Andrew Thomason Sep. 4, 2013, 12:37pm

The First District Appellate Court reversed a Cook County ruling in a suit over workers’ compensation and remanded it on the plaintiff’s subject matter jurisdiction claim.

In its Aug. 22 unpublished order , the appeals panel reversed Cook County Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn’s ruling in a suit the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority brought against the family of a deceased employee.

Justice James Epstein delivered the court’s order. Justice Terrence Lavin concurred while Justice Aurelia Pucinski dissented.

The suit surrounded the payment of workers’ compensation to Angeline Winters on behalf of her husband, John Winters Sr., a toll collector who died in 1997 after being hit by a truck while on the job.

Angeline Winters was awarded weekly compensation benefits of $376.83 until she received a total of $250,000, or until 20 years had elapsed, whichever was greater, starting in 1997.

She and her son, John Winters Jr., also filed a wrongful death suit against the truck driver, his employer and the lessor of the truck he was driving

The trucking defendants then filed a third-party complaint against the tollway. In exchange for dropping the complaint, the tollway agreed to only collect 50 percent of its lien rights from the defendants if the Winters were successful in their wrongful death suit.

The Winters won a jury trial in 2002 against the trucking defendants, but in 2003, a panel of the First District Appellate Court upheld a circuit court order granting a new trial.

According to the tollway, attorneys for the parties made an oral agreement that in exchange for the tollway waiving its remaining workers’ compensation lien, thus allowing the Winters to collect more from the trucking defendants, Angeline Winters would forfeit all future workers’ compensation benefits stemming from her husband’s death.

The tollway claims it approved the lien waiver and the Winters’ attorney, Thomas Power, then sent settlement contract lump sum petitions and orders form, which is used to finalize a workers’ compensation agreement.

The tollway, however, alleges that Angeline Winters’ signature was missing from the form.

Reached in 2007, the settlement between the trucking defendants and the Winters awarded the Winters $180,000 in addition to a monthly payment of $2,250 to Angeline Winters for life.

Following the settlement, the Winters’ attorney claimed the agreement that Angeline Winters forfeit her workers’ compensation benefits from the tollway “never existed, was never anticipated by the parties and never documented in any way.”

When the tollway stopped payments to Angeline Winters in 2008, she filed a petition for penalties and attorneys fees with the Illinois Workers Compensation Commission.

The following year, the tollway filed a six-count complaint in Cook County Circuit Court. The suit, which sought a mandatory injunction, included counts for breach of contract, conversion, fraud in the inducement and unjust enrichment.

The Winters filed a motion to dismiss the tollway's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which Flynn then granted.

In his order denying the tollway's motion to reconsider, Flynn wrote that “As all counts of the Tollway's Complaint ultimately involve a determination of compensation benefits, the Commission is the proper forum for this action. This Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the plain language of 820 ILCS 305/18.”

In the court's unpublished order, Epstein wrote that the appeals panel in this case only had to decide if the circuit court had subject matter jurisdiction in the case and did not have to rule on the merits of the case.

Epstein wrote that while the circuit court has jurisdiction over the complaint the tollway brought against Winters because the suit involved the alleged oral agreement augmenting Winters’ benefits, it does not have jurisdiction over the original determination of benefits.

“The Illinois Supreme Court has explained that the circuit courts have no original jurisdiction in cases involving a determination of workers’ compensation benefits,” Epstein explained.

He added, “The Tollway acknowledges this but correctly notes the distinction between a “determination of benefits” … and a decision that “may affect” the payment of those benefits.”

As such, the appeals panel reversed Flynn's dismissal of the tollway's suit and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Pucinski, however, dissented from the panel's order, saying that because the suit is based on an alleged oral agreement and not an executed settlement, the case should be heard by the workers' compensation commission.

“Because there is no effective settlement agreement, the questions arising under the (Workers’ Compensation) Act concerning the benefits in this case must be determined by the Commission in its exclusive jurisdiction,” Pucinski wrote.

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