Steven G. Petersen, Petitioner,
Utah Labor Commission and Granite School District, Respondents.
for Review of an Agency Decision
Halston T. Davis, Jared L. Mortenson, Salt Lake City, for
Jaceson R. Maughan, Salt Lake City, for respondent Utah Labor
A. Gardner, Kristy L. Bertelsen, Salt Lake City, for
respondent Granite School District.
L. Booher, Beth E. Kennedy, Salt Lake City, for amicus Utah
State Board of Regents.
Stanford E. Purser, Salt Lake City, for amicus State of Utah.
Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which
Justice Durham [*] and Justice Himonas joined.
DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE
1 This case presents the question of whether Utah Code
section 35-1-65 (1982) operates as an unconstitutional
statute of repose under the Open Courts Clause of the Utah
Constitution. The statute provides that an injured worker who
is temporarily totally disabled "shall receive" a
specified amount of compensation per week, but that
"[i]n no case shall compensation benefits exceed 312
weeks . . . over a period of eight years from the date of the
injury."In November 1982, Steven Petersen suffered
a back injury when, while working for the Granite School
District (Granite), a 500-pound cast iron boiler door fell
onto him. In proceedings before the Utah Labor Commission
(Commission), an impartial medical panel concluded that Mr.
Petersen's 1982 injury was the medical cause of a
subsequent surgery in 2014. An administrative law judge
(ALJ), with the Commission, denied Mr. Petersen's request
for temporary total disability compensation following the
2014 surgery on the ground that more than eight years had
elapsed since the date of the injury. Mr. Petersen appealed
this decision to the appeals board of the Commission (Appeals
Board), which affirmed.
2 Mr. Petersen filed a petition for review with this court.
He argues that the statute cuts off his right to temporary
total disability compensation before it accrued, thus
operating as an unconstitutional statute of repose in
violation of the Open Courts Clause of the Utah Constitution.
We hold that section 35-1-65 does not abrogate any previously
existing remedy and so is not subject to an Open Courts
Clause challenge. We disagree with Mr. Petersen's
contention that his common law tort cause of action was
abrogated with no adequate substitute remedy and hold that
the Workers' Compensation Act as a whole is an adequate
substitute. We therefore affirm the Commission's
3 On November 10, 1982, Mr. Petersen injured his back while
working for Granite. Mr. Petersen underwent back surgery in
December 1983. Granite paid the medical costs of this
surgery, as well as temporary total disability compensation
following this surgery.
4 Mr. Petersen returned to work, and in July 1987,
experienced a second work accident. He underwent a second
back surgery in March 1988 and a third back surgery in
December 1989. Granite paid for medical costs and temporary
total disability compensation following both surgeries. In
January 2004, more than twenty years after the date of the
original accident, Mr. Petersen underwent a fourth back
surgery. He was off work for seven months, and Granite paid
for both the medical costs of surgery and temporary total
disability compensation for this period.
5 In June 2011, while still working for Granite, Mr. Petersen
slipped and fell into a trench, landing with his back on an
exposed rock. He was off work for two weeks and then returned
to his regular work duties. In March 2014, Mr. Petersen
underwent a fifth surgery, but this time Granite refused to
pay temporary total disability compensation. Mr. Petersen
then sought a hearing before the Commission, seeking
temporary total disability compensation for work missed
following the 2014 surgery.
6 The ALJ referred the case to a medical panel, which
concluded that Mr. Petersen's 1982 accident, and not his
2011 accident, medically necessitated the 2014
surgery. The ALJ denied Mr. Petersen's request
for temporary total disability compensation on the grounds
that the eight-year period specified by Utah Code section
35-1-65 is a statute of limitation that expired on November
10, 1990, eight years from the date of the initial workplace
7 Mr. Petersen appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals
Board. The Appeals Board disagreed with the ALJ, concluding
that section 35-1-65 is a statute of repose that may be
unconstitutional under the Open Courts Clause of the Utah
Constitution. But because the Appeals Board concluded that it
lacked authority to adjudicate the constitutionality of the
statute, it affirmed the ALJ's order denying temporary
total disability compensation. Mr. Petersen then filed a
petition for review, which was certified to this court. His
sole contention before this court is that section 35-1-65
operated as an unconstitutional statute of repose under the
Open Courts Clause.
8 This court "has jurisdiction to review all final
agency action resulting from formal adjudicative
proceedings" and is empowered to "grant
relief" where "a person seeking judicial review has
been substantially prejudiced" because "the agency
action, or the statute or rule on which the agency action is
based, is unconstitutional on its face or as
applied" or "the agency has erroneously
interpreted or applied the law." "A person is
'substantially prejudiced' when the agency's
erroneous interpretation or application is not harmless. We
review that agency's interpretation or application of the
law for correctness."
9 There are two issues on appeal: first, whether Utah Code
section 35-1-65, the temporary total disability statute, is a
statute of limitation or a statute of repose. If it is a
statute of limitation, our analysis ends. If it is a
statute of repose, we must address whether it survives
scrutiny under our Open Courts Clause jurisprudence.
10 We conclude that section 35-1-65 is not a statute of
limitation, but that, in any event, it does not operate to
abrogate a previously existing remedy and so is not
subject to challenge under the Open Courts Clause. Moreover,
we conclude that the only plausible challenge Mr. Petersen
could raise is that section 35-1-65 is an inadequate
substitute remedy for the loss of an injured employee's
common law tort claim. We hold, however, that such a
challenge must fail because the Utah Workers'
Compensation Act (WCA) as a whole is an adequate substitute
remedy for the loss of such a tort claim.
Code Section 35-1-65 Is Not a Statute of Limitation and Does
Not Abrogate a Previously Existing Remedy
11 The first issue we must decide is whether Utah Code
section 35-1-65 is a statute of limitation or repose. After
examining how section 35-1-65 operates within the WCA
context, we conclude that it is not a statute of limitation.
We next assess whether the statute is one of repose that
abrogates a remedy in a manner implicating the Open Courts
Clause of the Utah Constitution. Because it does not operate
to abrogate a previously existing remedy, we hold that
section 35-1-65 does not implicate our open courts
Section 35-1-65 Is Not a Statute of Limitation Because It
Does Not Specify a Time Period Following the Accrual of a
Cause of Action During Which a Claim Must Be Brought
12 As noted above, we must determine whether section 35-1-65
is a statute of limitation or repose. "A statute of
limitations requires a lawsuit to be filed within a specified
period of time after" a cause of action accrues.
contrast, a statute of repose "bars all actions after a
specified period of time has run from the occurrence of some
event other than the occurrence of an injury that gives rise
to a cause of action." Thus, to assess whether section
35-1-65 is a statute of limitation or repose, we must
determine what event-whether the accrual of a cause of action
or some other event-starts the clock on the statutory time
13 "[A] cause of action accrues upon the happening of
the last event necessary to complete the cause of
action." The difficulty in this case, then, is
determining what constitutes a "cause of action" in
the Workers' Compensation context and when such a cause
of action "accrues." "Workers'
compensation claims are best viewed as a process, rather than
as a discrete event . . . ." We have recognized that
WCA "remedies, whether viewed individually or together,
are not analogous to an ordinary lump-sum judgment that the
common law provides for personal injury
14 The relevant portions of section 35-1-65 provide:
In case of temporary disability, the employee shall receive
66 2/3% of that employee's average weekly wage at the
time of the injury so long as such disability is total . . .
. In no case shall compensation benefits exceed 312 weeks . .
. over a period of eight years from the date of the injury.
from the outset that while the statute runs from the
"date of the injury, " we have consistently
interpreted this phrase to mean the date of the workplace
accident. The question then becomes whether the
"last event necessary to complete the cause of
action" is the workplace accident. If so, section
35-1-65 is a statute of limitation. If not, then the statute
is not one of limitation because it runs from a date other
than the happening of the last event necessary to give rise
to a cause of action.
15 Granite argues that Mr. Petersen's "cause of
action" for temporary total disability, unlike a claim
for death benefits,  did not "arise after the
happening of some unanticipated event such as a need for
surgery, or even death, but rather runs from the date of the
injury as explicitly provided for by the
statute." In Granite's view, a WCA cause of
action fully accrues on the date of the accident. Though
there is some support for this argument in our caselaw,
we ultimately reject it, at least in the context of section
16 Mr. Petersen's cause of action for temporary total
disability compensation did not fully accrue when he was
first injured in 1982. Instead, that right accrued at the
moment he became temporarily disabled and therefore entitled
to compensation. This is because the period of disability is
the "last event necessary to complete the cause of
action" under the statute, which provides that temporary
total disability compensation "shall" be awarded
"so long as" the "disability is total."
The words "so long as" necessarily convey that the
disability could cease to be total, or that it might not be
total immediately upon the happening of the accident. Because
the statute requires that "disability" be
"total" before compensation may be awarded, and
total disability may not occur on the day of the accident,
the happening of the workplace accident alone is not the
"last event necessary" to entitle Mr. Petersen to
compensation. A statute of limitation runs from the last
event necessary to complete the cause of action. But a
statute of repose runs from a date other than this last
event. This statute runs not from the time that
an injured worker enters a period of total disability, but
instead from the happening of the accident. Thus, it is not a
statute of limitation.
Section 35-1-65 Does Not Violate the Open Courts Clause,
Because It Does Not Cut Off a Previously Existing Remedy
17 Mr. Petersen argues that section 35-1-65 is a statute of
repose that abrogates his right to a remedy in violation of
our Open Courts Clause. After briefly reviewing our open
courts jurisprudence, we conclude that even if the statute
qualifies as a statute of repose, it does not violate our
constitution because it does not operate to cut off a
previously existing remedy, and so Mr. Petersen's
challenge to the statute fails.
18 A "statute of repose bars all actions after a
specified period of time has run from the occurrence of some
event other than the occurrence of an injury that gives rise
to a cause of action." Based on this definition,
section 35-1-65 is arguably a statute of repose: it bars all
actions for temporary total disability after eight years have
run from the occurrence of the workplace accident, which, as
discussed above, is not the last event necessary to create a
cause of action for temporary total disability.
19 But a closer review of section 35-1-65 and its history
reveals that it does not operate to cut off a previously
existing remedy. Because it does not, section 35-1-65 is
not akin to those statutes we have found susceptible to Open
Courts Clause challenges. Section 35-1-65 does not cut
off a previously existing right to temporary total disability
compensation; instead, it creates a right to
temporary total disability compensation, albeit with a
built-in time limitation. A review of our Open Courts Clause
jurisprudence reveals ...