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Gassner v. Raynor Mfg. Co. - 409 Ill. App. 3d 995, 350 Ill. Dec. 246, 948 N.E.2d 315 (2011)

Rule:

Under both the four corners rule and the provisional admission approach to contract interpretation, the first step is to determine whether an ambiguity exists. An ambiguity exists where there is doubt as to the true sense or meaning of the words themselves or an indefiniteness in the words' expression, resulting in a difficulty in the application of the words under the circumstances of the dispute that the contract is supposed to govern. Additionally, when dealing with a settlement contract involving a work injury that would be covered under the Workers' Compensation Act, a court construes the contract strongly against the drafter, and the risk of ambiguity and lack of clarity is on the drafting party.

Facts:

On May 30, 2000, plaintiff Gunther Gassner, sustained a work-related back injury and, following surgery for the injury, a staphylococcal (staph) infection originating in his back area. On May 1, 2002, in settlement thereof, the Industrial Commission ("Commission") approved a "settlement contract" between Gassner and his employer, defendant Raynor Manufacturing Company ("RMC"). The settlement contract contained an "open medical provision" whereby, despite Gassner's general release, RMC agreed to pay for certain approved treatment for a year following approval of the settlement contract. After the approval, the staph infection spread to Gassner's heart, and Gassner incurred approximately $190,000 in medical expenses for treatment to his heart. RMC refused to pay those expenses. On Oct. 31, 2008, Gassner filed a petition for entry of judgment pursuant to § 19(g) of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("Act"), 820 ILCS 305/19(g). RMC filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the statute of limitations barred Gassner's claim. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss. RMC then filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. Gassner appealed moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion. Gassner appeals the ruling granting RMC summary judgment; RMC cross-appealed the denial of its motion to dismiss.

Issue:

Was RMC entitled to summary judgment?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment denying RMC's motion to dismiss, reversed  the trial court's judgment granting RMC summary judgment and remanded the cause for further proceedings. The court held that the contract between the parties was ambiguous. The open medical provision did not, as a matter of law, exclude treatment for Gassner's staph infection. Summary judgment was therefore inappropriate. Whether the parties created the open medical provision to include or exclude treatment of the staph infection was a question of fact to be decided in the trial court, as was the question of whether the staph infection that damaged Gassner's heart was the same infection that originated in his low back as a result of the low back surgery that corrected the initial work injury.

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