In Cunningham v. Goodyear, N.C. Supreme Court Upholds Workers’ Claim and Its Own Independence in Jurisdictional Fact-Finding

May 11, 2022   |   Erwin Byrd

The Court endorses arguments made by NCAJ in its amicus brief and rules the injured employee’s claims were not time-barred and the appellate courts have authority to independently weigh that question.

Cunningham v. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Opinion Filed: May 6, 2022
Attorney for the Case: Kathleen Sumner
Amicus Brief Writers: Vernon Sumwalt and Michael Bertics

Supreme Court of North Carolina No. 465A20

Last week, the Supreme Court of North Carolina resolved a key issue in this workers’ compensation case in favor of an injured worker, upholding the majority decision of the Court of Appeals and reversing the Industrial Commission’s dismissal and denial of the worker’s claim. In Cunningham v. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the Court’s opinion, authored by Justice Robin Hudson, reiterated long-standing precedent that allows reviewing courts to subject certain Industrial Commission findings to de novo review. In so doing, the Court upheld its own precedent and that of the Court of Appeals, endorsing arguments made by NCAJ in its amicus brief filed in support of the plaintiff.

In the amicus brief, written by Vernon Sumwalt and Michael Bertics, NCAJ contended that the determination of whether workers’ compensation claims are time-barred by N.C.G.S. 97-24(a) is not, like other findings of fact, conclusive if supported by any competent evidence. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that findings concerning the timeliness of such claims concern the jurisdiction of the Industrial Commission and are therefore subject to de novo review on appeal. The Court also recognized that precedents upon which it relied hinge on a tenet of statutory construction that NCAJ amicus briefs have promoted many times over the years:  “the Workers’ Compensation Act requires liberal construction to accomplish the legislative purpose of providing compensation for injured employees, and that this overarching purpose is not to be defeated by the overly rigorous ‘technical, narrow and strict interpretation’ of its provisions.’ ”

The consequence of these holdings for the plaintiff in Cunningham is immense: Her claim will finally be heard. In the future, this decision will help other injured workers, whose claims might otherwise be dismissed, to get the care and compensation they need. Thank you NCAJ member Kathleen Sumner for her representation of Cunningham and to NCAJ members Vernon Sumwalt and Michael Bertics, who wrote the amicus brief to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.