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Boudreaux v. Weyerhaeuser Co.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

August 26, 2019

ETHAN BOUDREAUX, STANLEY BURTON, BRAD GUILBEAU, JIMMY OGLESBY, JR., DALTON TOMS, and JUSTIN WORTHINGTON, Appellants,
v.
WEYERHAEUSER COMPANY, Respondent.

          OPINION

          DWYER, J.

         Ethan Boudreaux and five of his former co-workers (collectively Boudreaux) were exposed to formaldehyde in Weyerhaeuser's Gen-4 Flak Jacket joist coating while working for a contractor performing services for Weyerhaeuser Company in Louisiana. Boudreaux brought claims against Weyerhaeuser under the Washington product liability act (WPLA), chapter 7.72 RCW, alleging injury caused by exposure to formaldehyde as a result of the defective design, formulation, and fabrication of Weyerhaeuser's Gen-4 Flak Jacket joist coating. In response to the suit, Weyerhaeuser filed a CR 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, asserting that it was Boudreaux's statutory employer under the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Act, La. Stat. Ann. § 23:1032, that Boudreaux's claims could only be brought before Louisiana's Office of Workers' Compensation Administration, and that the King County Superior Court accordingly lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Boudreaux's claims. The superior court agreed and dismissed Boudreaux's suit.

         We hold that Weyerhaeuser's statutory employer defense pertains to whether a civil cause of action exists, rather than to whether a Washington superior court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Because the trial court's ruling conflicts with our constitution's grant of general subject matter jurisdiction to our superior courts, we reverse.

         I

         Boudreaux sued Weyerhaeuser, a Washington company with its headquarters in Seattle, under the WPLA, alleging "harm caused by the fabrication, design, formula, preparation, testing, failures to warn or instruct, marketing, and labeling of Flak Jacket," and "injuries as a result of being exposed to toxic levels of formaldehyde contained in Gen 4 Flak Jacket."[1] Boudreaux was exposed to Gen-4 Flak Jacket in Louisiana as an employee of Simsboro Coating Services, LLC, a Louisiana company hired by Weyerhaeuser to provide coating services, specifically coating joists with Weyerhaeuser's Gen-4 Flak Jacket. Boudreaux alleged that he was injured by exposure to formaldehyde in Gen-4 Flak Jacket from December 2016 through June 2017.

         Weyerhaeuser responded to the complaint by filing a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to CR 12(b)(1).[2] Therein, Weyerhaeuser asserted that it was Boudreaux's statutory employer under the Louisiana Workers' Compensation Act, La. Stat. Ann. § 23:1032, that Boudreaux's claims could only be brought before Louisiana's Office of Workers' Compensation Administration, and that the superior court accordingly lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Boudreaux's claims.[3]

         Following a hearing, the trial court granted Weyerhaeuser's motion to dismiss. In its brief memorandum opinion supporting the dismissal order, the trial court engaged in fact finding, determined that Weyerhaeuser was Boudreaux's statutory employer, and ruled that Washington superior courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Boudreaux's claims. Boudreaux appeals.

         II

         This case presents us with the question of whether Weyerhaeuser's asserted defense of statutory immunity pertains to the original subject matter jurisdiction of Washington's superior courts. To resolve this question, we first look to how Washington courts consider assertions of employer immunity under the substantive workers' compensation laws of Washington, as set forth in the Industrial Insurance Act (IIA), Title 51 RCW. Next, we look to the workers' compensation laws of Louisiana to determine whether any differences between Louisiana's and Washington's substantive law would prevent the application of Washington procedural law to Weyerhaeuser's assertion of employer immunity. This analysis results in a clear answer: the superior court erred by treating Weyerhaeuser's statutory employer immunity defense as pertaining to the subject matter jurisdiction of the superior court.

         A

         Our Supreme Court has noted that Washington's courts, itself included, have been "inconsistent in their understanding and application of jurisdiction." ]n re Marriage of Buecking, 179 Wn.2d 438, 447, 316 P.3d 999 (2013); see also O'Keefe v. Dep't of Revenue, 79 Wn.2d 633, 634, 488 P.2d 754 (1971) ("Perhaps no word is more deserving of characterization as a 'weasel word of the law' than the much used and often abused word 'jurisdiction.'"); In re Marriage of Major, 71 Wn.App. 531, 534, 859 P.2d 1262 (1993) ("The term 'subject matter jurisdiction' is often confused with a court's 'authority' to rule in a particular manner. This has led to improvident and inconsistent use of the term." (footnote omitted)). The United States Supreme Court has also observed that in circumstances in which the question of jurisdiction was "not central to the case" and therefore did "not require close analysis," courts have often "mischaracterized claim-processing rules or elements of a cause of action as jurisdictional limitations." Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 161, 130 S.Ct. 1237, 176 L.Ed.2d 18 (2010). According to the Court, such mischaracterizations lead to "'drive-by jurisdictional rulings,' which too easily can miss the 'critical difference[s]' between true jurisdictional conditions and nonjurisdictional limitations on causes of action." Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S. at 161 (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (quoting Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 456, 124 S.Ct. 906, 157 L.Ed.2d 867 (2004)).

         To counter this inconsistency, Washington's Supreme Court has recently "narrowed the types of errors that implicate a court's subject matter jurisdiction." Buecking, 179 Wn.2d at 448. "'Subject matter jurisdiction' refers to a court's ability to entertain a type of case, not to its authority to enter an order in a particular case." Buecking, 179 Wn.2d at 448. Thus, "[a] court has subject matter jurisdiction where it has authority 'to adjudicate the type of controversy involved in the action.'" In re Marriage of McDermott, 175 Wn.App. 467, 480-81, 307 P.3d 717 (2013) (quoting Shoop v. Kittitas County, 108 Wn.App. 388, 393, 30 P.3d 529 (2001), aff'd on other grounds, 149 Wn.2d 29, 65 P.3d 1194 (2003)). "If the type of controversy is within the subject matter jurisdiction, then all other defects or errors go to something other than subject matter jurisdiction." Cole v. Harveyland. LLC, 163 Wn.App. 199, 209, 258 P.3d 70 (2011).

         The original subject matter jurisdiction of Washington's superior courts is set forth in the Washington Constitution:

The superior court shall have original jurisdiction in all cases at law which involve the title or possession of real property, or the legality of any tax, impost, assessment, toll, or municipal fine, and in all other cases in which the demand or the value of the property in controversy amounts to three thousand dollars or as otherwise determined by law, or a lesser sum in excess of the jurisdiction granted to justices of the peace and other inferior courts, and in all criminal cases amounting to felony, and in all cases of misdemeanor not otherwise provided for by law; of actions of forcible entry and detainer; of proceedings in insolvency; of actions to prevent or abate a nuisance; of all matters of probate, of divorce, and for annulment of marriage; and for such special cases and proceedings as are not otherwise provided for. The superior court shall also have original jurisdiction in all cases and of all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court; and said court shall have the power of naturalization and to issue papers therefor.

Const, art. IV, § 6.

         Our Supreme Court has explained that the original subject matter jurisdiction of the superior court is comprised of both enumerated subject matter jurisdiction and residual subject matter jurisdiction. State v. Posey, 174 Wn.2d 131, 135-36, 272 P.3d 840 (2012). The enumerated original subject matter jurisdiction of the superior court includes

all cases at law which involve the title or possession of real property, or the legality of any tax, impost, assessment, toll, or municipal fine, and in all other cases in which the demand or the value of the property in controversy amounts to three thousand dollars or as otherwise determined by law, or a lesser sum in excess of the jurisdiction granted to justices of the peace and other inferior courts, and in all criminal cases amounting to felony, and in all cases of misdemeanor not otherwise provided for by law; of actions of forcible entry and detainer; of proceedings in insolvency; of actions to prevent or abate a nuisance; of all matters of probate, of divorce, and for annulment of marriage; and for such special cases and proceedings as are not otherwise provided for.

Const, art. IV, § 6; see a|so Posey, 174 Wn.2d at 135.

         In contrast to the specified categories of enumerated jurisdiction, the residual jurisdiction of the superior court broadly includes "'all cases and ... all proceedings in which jurisdiction shall not have been by law vested exclusively in some other court.'" Posey, 174 Wn.2d at 136 (quoting Const, art. IV, § 6).

         Enumerated and residual subject matter jurisdiction differ in both scope and in the manner in which that scope may be altered. As explained in Posey, enumerated original subject matter jurisdiction encompasses only those cases falling within one of the explicitly listed categories in the constitution, and cannot be modified or restricted by legislative enactment. 174 Wn.2d at 135-36. Residual original subject matter jurisdiction, on the other hand, includes all other cases and proceedings, but may be restricted by legislative enactment if, and only if, such enactment vests exclusive jurisdiction over nonenumerated types of claims in some other court. Posey, 174 Wn.2d at 136; Const, art. IV, § 6.

         Both enumerated and residual subject matter jurisdiction may be modified by a constitutional amendment adopted pursuant to the amendment procedure set forth in our constitution:

Any amendment or amendments to this Constitution may be proposed in either branch of the legislature; and if the same shall be agreed to by two-thirds of the members elected to each of the two houses, such proposed amendment or amendments shall be entered on their journals, with the ayes and noes thereon, and be submitted to the qualified electors of the state for their approval, at the next general election; and if the people approve and ratify such amendment or amendments, by a majority of the electors voting thereon, the same shall become part of this Constitution.

Const, art. XXIII, § 1.

         B

         We next turn to the substantive workers' compensation law of Washington, the IIA, to determine whether it places any limits on the subject matter jurisdiction of Washington's superior courts.

         1

         In the early years of statehood, employees could bring causes of action against their employers in superior court seeking to recover damages for workplace injuries. See e.g., Withiam v. Tenino Stone Quarry, 48 Wash. 127, 129-30, 92 P. 900 (1907); Christianson v. Pac. Bridge Co., 27 Wash. 582, 585, 68 P. 191 (1902); Richardson v. Carbon Hill Coal Co., 6 Wash. 52, 56-57, 32 P. 1012 (1893); see also Reynolds v. Day, 79 Wash. 499, 506, 140 P. 681 (1914) ("Unquestionably, before the industrial insurance act was passed, our courts would have entertained [common law tort] action[s between employees and employers.]"). It is evident from reported case law that Washington's superior courts, at the time of statehood, had subject matter jurisdiction over tort actions for personal injury brought by employees against their employers.[4]

         Then, "[i]n 1911, the legislature passed the Industrial Insurance Act (IIA), Title 51 RCW, creating a no-fault system for efficiently compensating workers injured on the job. As part of that system, employers receive immunity from civil suits resulting from on-the-job injuries." Walston v. Boeing Co., 181 Wn.2d 391, 393, 334 P.3d 519 (2014) (citing RCW 51.04.010). "Washington's IIA was the product of a grand compromise in 1911. Injured workers were given a swift, no-fault compensation system for injuries on the job. Employers were given immunity from civil suits by workers." Birklid v. Boeing Co., 127 Wn.2d 853, 859, 904 P.2d 278 (1995). The IIA is intended to provide

sure and certain relief for workers, injured in their work, and their families and dependents . . . regardless of questions of fault and to the exclusion of every other remedy, proceeding or compensation, except as otherwise provided in this title; and to that end all civil actions and civil causes of action for such personal injuries and all jurisdiction of the courts of the state over such causes are hereby abolished, except as in this title provided.

RCW 51.04.010.

         Our Supreme Court was first tasked with interpreting the IIA later that year. See State ex rel. Davis-Smith Co. v. Clausen, 65 Wash. 156, 117 P. 1101 (1911). Therein, the court considered several constitutional arguments against the IIA and concluded that the act did not violate either the state or federal constitutions. Clausen, 65 Wash, at 212. One such argument was that the statute unconstitutionally strips employers and employees of the right to a trial by jury for the "admeasurement of damages arising from injuries received by one in the employment of another." Clausen. 65 Wash, at 207. In rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court explained its view of the effect of the statute:

The constitution does not undertake to define what shall constitute a cause of action, nor to prohibit the legislature from so doing. The right of trial by jury accorded by the constitution, as applicable to civil cases, is incident only to causes of action recognized by law. The act here in question takes away the cause of action, on the one hand, and the ground of defense, on the other; and merges both in a statutory indemnity, fixed and certain. . . . The right of jury trial being incidental to the right of action, to destroy the one is to leave the other nothing upon which to operate.

Clausen, 65 Wash, at 210-11 (emphasis added).

         Our Supreme Court was clear: the IIA takes away a cause of action, replacing it with a statutory indemnity. No subsequent case has rejected the Clausen analysis of the effect of the IIA. Indeed, the opposite is true, as most subsequent cases explicitly reiterate the Clausen court's interpretation. See e.g., Meyer v. Burger King Corp.,144 Wn.2d 160, 164, 26 P.3d 925 (2001) (recognizing that the IIA "abolishes most civil actions arising from on-the-job injuries and replaces them with the exclusive remedy of industrial insurance benefits"); Birklid, 127 Wn.2d at 859 ("Employers were given immunity from civil suits by workers."); Perry v. Beverage,121 Wash. 652, 666, 214 P. 146 (1923) ("[A]n injured workman who is under the workmen's compensation act, and whose injury grew out of his employment, has no right of action, either against his employer or against a third person, except as provided in the act."); Stertz v. Indus. Ins. Comm'n of Wash.,91 Wash. 588, 595, 158 P. 256 (1916) ("the [IIA's] first section put an end to all civil actions appertaining to master and servant liability"), abrogated on other grounds by Birklid. 127 Wn.2d 853; State v. Mountain Timber Co.,75 Wash. 581, 583, 135 P. 645(1913) (stating that the IIA "abolished rights of actions and defenses"), aff'd, 243 U.S. 219, 37 S.Ct. 260, 61 L.Ed. 685 (1917); Michelbrink v. Wash. State Patrol,191 Wn.App. 414, 422, 363 P.3d 6 (2015) ("[B]ecause the legislature intended to immunize employers from civil suits for workplace injuries, the IIA established a general prohibition on all civil suits for ...


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