Employer Not Required to Rely on Misrepresentation of Prior Condition in Order to Prevail on Affirmative Defense
On August 5, 2011, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its decision in the case of Cascaden v. Winn-Dixie Montgomery, LLC. The appellate Court affirmed the ruling of the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama, which held that the injured employee was barred from receiving workers’ compensation benefits because he misrepresented his physical condition, in writing, at the time he was hired.
Scott Cascaden, who began working for Winn-Dixie in 1999, allegedly suffered injuries to his lower back and neck in 2001 when he was involved in an automobile accident while returning home from a Christmas party hosted by some of the Winn-Dixie store managers. Cascaden was treated by two different doctors for his injuries, and subsequently underwent physical therapy. He then left his employment at Winn-Dixie in 2002. In 2007, Cascaden went back to work at Winn-Dixie as a meat cutter. As part of the re-hiring process, he completed a medical questionnaire wherein he stated that he had never injured his back or neck, and had not received medical treatment for any injuries within the last five years. Cascaden filed an action against Winn-Dixie on January 5, 2010, seeking workers’ compensation benefits. Cascaden claimed that he suffered a back injury as a result of lifting boxes at Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie subsequently filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, relying on § 25-5-51 of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, which provides that no compensation shall be allowed if the employee knowingly and falsely makes written misrepresentations at the time of or in the course of entering into employment, the employee is warned in writing that such misrepresentations will void his workers’ compensation benefits, and the condition is aggravated or reinjured in an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.
When asked why he denied the previous injuries at his deposition, Cascaden testified that he feared that he would not have been hired as a meat cutter if he had been truthful in answering the questionnaire. Cascaden admitted that he knew that his representations were false at the time he completed the questionnaire. However, Cascaden argued that Winn-Dixie could not have relied upon his misrepresentations, because Winn-Dixie was already aware of the prior injuries since they occurred during his previous employment there. Winn-Dixie argued that its reliance on Cascaden’s misrepresentations was not a material element of the defense, and it was therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The trial Court agreed, and Cascaden appealed.
In its decision, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals pointed to the difference between the statutory defense created in § 25-5-51 of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, and the judicially-created defense crafted by the Alabama Supreme Court in Ex Parte Southern Energy Homes, Inc; 603 So.2d 1036 (Ala. 1992). In Ex Parte Southern Energy Homes, the Supreme Court created a defense similar to that in § 25-5-51 of the Act, that required the employer to prove slightly different elements. The Supreme Court’s ruling in that case held that the employer has no obligation to pay workers’ compensation benefits when (1) the employee knowingly and willfully made a false representation as to his physical condition; (2) the employer relied upon the false representation and said reliance was a substantial factor in the hiring; and (3) there is a causal connection between the false representation and the injury. While the judicially created defense requires reliance upon the misrepresentation by the employer, the statutorily created defense in § 25-5-51 does not. When comparing the language of the statutorily created defense to language in other statutes pertaining to civil actions based on misrepresentation, such as deceit, the appellate Court stated that if the legislature intended for reliance to be a required element, it would have stated so in the statute. Since the legislature did not intend for reliance to be an element of the defense, employers are not required to prove that they relied on the employee’s misrepresentations. Therefore, the judgment of the trial Court was affirmed.