Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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A property owner cut down trees on his lot to build a cabin. The trees were protected by his subdivision’s Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CCRs) and could not be cut down without prior approval. The owners of an adjacent lot sued him. The superior court found the property owner liable and, following a two-day bench trial, awarded the neighbors compensatory restoration damages and punitive damages. The property owner appealed, arguing that the superior court erred in both damages awards. After review of the trial court record, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed: there was no basis in the evidence for an award of restoration costs when the trees would not be restored, and there was no evidence to support an award based on a loss of value to the neighbors’ property. Nor was there proof of an independent tort as necessary to support a punitive damages award in a case premised on the breach of CCRs. The superior court's judgment was vacated and the matter remanded for entry of a nominal damages award. View "Galipeau v. Bixby" on Justia Law

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Ge Vue was an asset-protection worker at the Walmart in Eagle River, Alaska in 2016. On February 3, he was shot in the back and face with a pellet gun when he and another asset-protection worker tried to stop three juveniles from taking a cart full of merchandise they had not paid for. No pellets penetrated his back, but one pellet penetrated the skin near his right eye and came to rest in his right orbit, or eye socket, near his optic nerve. He underwent surgery for the injury, and received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. His employer contended that he was not disabled by the psychological injury and, after an ophthalmologist retained by the employer questioned specific pain-related medical care, the employer controverted that treatment. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board granted the worker’s claim for medical care, found the employer had not unfairly or frivolously controverted benefits, and denied the worker’s request for disability during periods of time when his eye doctors said he had the physical capacity to perform asset-protection work. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Vue appealed,, making arguments related to disability and the standard for finding an unfair or frivolous controversion. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, and remanded with instructions to remand to the Board for calculation of benefits and penalty owed to the worker. View "Vue v. Walmart Associates, Inc." on Justia Law

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In October 2015, Amy Downing purchased a life insurance policy from Country Life Insurance Company. She purchased both an “executive whole life” policy that would pay a flat amount of $500,000 to her beneficiaries upon her death and a “Paid-Up Additions Rider” (PUAR) that provided an additional death benefit and an investment opportunity. Although Amy's father Tom worked for Country, another employee, Robert Sullivan, met with Amy and Tom to describe the terms of the policy. Amy asked Sullivan why she needed one and a half million dollars in insurance coverage because it was a larger benefit than she expected to need and it required higher yearly premiums. Sullivan explained that although she might not need the large death benefit, the structure of the PUAR provided an investment opportunity because it maximized the policy’s cash value. Sullivan later testified that he never represented to Amy that the death benefit associated with the PUAR was a flat amount. After paying the premiums for a year, Amy informed her parents that she intended to abandon the policy and withdraw its existing cash value. Her mother Kathleen decided to look into the policy as an investment. Kathleen decided to take over payment of the premiums on Amy’s life insurance policy, including the PUAR, as an investment. With Tom’s assistance, Amy assigned her policy to Kathleen. Four months later, on January 27, 2017, Amy died in an accident. Her death occurred in the second year of her policy coverage. Country paid the death benefit of $500,000 on Amy’s whole life policy. Country also paid $108,855 on Amy’s PUAR. Kathleen sued, alleging that she was entitled to $1,095,741 on Amy’s PUAR, minus the $108,855 already paid. Judgment was rendered in favor of Country, and Kathleen appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court did not err in its interpretation of the insurance policy at issue, and affirmed the decision. View "Downing v. Country Life Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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Russell Baker was hired by Federal Express Corporation (FedEx) as a pilot in June 2006. Employment agreements between FedEx and its pilots are established via collective bargaining with a union, the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA). During the relevant period of Baker’s employment, ALPA’s agreement with FedEx offered pilots on foreign duty assignments options to finance either relocation housing or their commute. Pilots based in Hong Kong could elect an “enhanced” relocation package instead of commuting. Pilots choosing that package had 18 months to complete their relocation, but were obligated to reimburse FedEx if they did not actually relocate. FedEx retained the right to request documentation establishing that relocation had actually occurred, including “verification of the permanent relocation of a pilot’s spouse, and/or dependent children under the age of 18 years, if applicable.” Baker would be fired by FedEx after he collected a relocation allowance based on misleading statements that his spouse had relocated with him. While his employment termination proceedings were ongoing, he filed complaints with the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights, contending FedEx engaged in marital status discrimination by requiring married pilots to relocate their spouses as a condition of the relocation allowance, and FedEx retaliated against him for filing the first complaint. The Commission concluded that there was substantial evidence of illegal discrimination, but exercised its statutory discretion to dismiss the complaint instead of bringing an enforcement action. The Commission also dismissed his second complaint, concluding that there was not substantial evidence of retaliation. Baker appealed the Commission’s decisions to the superior court, which affirmed the decisions. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission did not abuse its substantial discretion by declining to prosecute the discrimination complaint, and did not err by concluding that the employer did not retaliate against the pilot after he filed his discrimination complaint. View "Baker v. Alaska Commission for Human Rights (Federal Express Corp.)" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Joshua Martinez was driving a pickup truck when he lost control and crashed into a cabin, injuring the cabin owner Charles Burnett, and causing damage, including a spill of heating fuel. Burnett asked Martinez's insurance company, Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO) to pay him to do the cleanup himself, but the insurance company refused because the cabin owner did not have the qualifications required by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Cleanup stalled for over a year while the effects of the spill on the property and the owner’s health allegedly worsened. Martinez and the truck’s owner (his father) Robert Martinez, settled with the Burnett for the maximum limits of the insurance policy, but Burnett sought additional damages from the insurance company for its failure to promptly clean up the property. Following summary judgment for the insurance company and a reversal and remand by the Alaska Supreme Court, the superior court held an evidentiary hearing to decide whether the insurance company had assumed a duty to the cabin owner independent of the duty it owed its insureds. The superior court found there was no such duty. Burnett and the insureds appeal. Burnett contended the superior court erred by finding no actionable duty, and that it deprived him of due process by failing to consider his arguments before entering proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and awarding attorney’s fees. The insureds argued the superior court erred by deciding that they were precluded from further participation in the litigation once they entered into a settlement and were voluntarily dismissed from the case. The Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not clearly err in its findings of fact about the existence of an independent duty and that it did not violate Burnett’s due process rights. The Court also concluded the insureds were no longer parties to the case at the time they sought to renew their participation in it, and their arguments that they were entitled to either joinder or intervention were waived for lack of briefing. View "Martinez v. Government Employees Insurance Company, et al." on Justia Law

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In late 2014 Andy James was working in Deadhorse for Northern Construction & Maintenance, LLC, a company owned by John Ellsworth and members of his family. Ellsworth also owned Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc. Alaska Frontier had some kind of business relationship with Nanuq, Inc. In late December Northern Construction sent James from his usual work assignment to work in some capacity in connection with an ice road being constructed and maintained for Caelus Energy Alaska, LLC. James was instructed to work at the direction of Scott Pleas. Despite dangerous blizzard conditions, Pleas directed James to accompany another worker, Johann Willrich, to check fuel levels on equipment idling outside; James objected due to the weather, but was threatened with the loss of his job if he did not follow the direction. James complied; he climbed a large grader to fuel it, but a wind gust blew him off, resulting in shoulder and spinal injuries. James filed personal injury lawsuits, which were consolidated, against the companies. The companies sought and obtained summary judgment rulings that they had statutory employer immunity from the injury claims under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision. James appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because numerous issues of material fact made it impossible to determine whether the companies were entitled to judgment as a matter of law that they were immune from liability under the Act, summary judgment was reversed, the judgment against James vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "James v. Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc." on Justia Law

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In April 2015 Tracy Sampson was at the Kotzebue Airport, en route from Anchorage to her home in Selawik. She was walking from the Alaska Airlines terminal to the Bering Air terminal when she slipped and fell on ice. Paramedics brought her to the hospital emergency room. Medical staff took X-rays and told Sampson that she had fractured her kneecap and needed to go to Anchorage for surgery. Medical staff at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage informed Sampson that half of her kneecap was fractured and half was shattered. They subsequently performed surgery. After surgery, her knee was put in an immobilizer and a cast. She traveled back to Selawik around a week later and was bedridden for about two months. Sampson filed suit against the airline; a jury found the airline liable and awarded Sampson "substantial" damages. Sampson appealed, arguing the special verdict form contradicted the jury instructions. Because the verdict form was not plainly erroneous, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Sampson v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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Landowners Ronald and Annette Alleva settled a lawsuit against a the Municipality of Anchorage and organizations that operated a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen; the settlement agreement recited that the landowners accepted a sum of money in exchange for a release of present and future trespass and nuisance claims involving the organizations’ clients. Six years later the landowners filed this lawsuit asserting similar claims. Their complaint referred to the prior settlement, but they did not file the settlement agreement with the complaint. The defendants moved to dismiss, relying on the settlement agreement. The landowners argued that because the settlement agreement had not been filed with the complaint, it could not be used as a basis for dismissal under Alaska Civil Rule 12(b)(6). The superior court rejected the landowners’ argument, granted the motion to dismiss, and ruled in the alternative that the defendants were entitled to summary judgment. The landowners appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the superior court that the settlement agreement was properly considered on the motion to dismiss because it was addressed in the complaint and its authenticity was not questioned. The Supreme Court also agreed that the settlement barred the landowners’ current lawsuit. View "Alleva v. Municipality of Anchorage" on Justia Law

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Virgil Adams, a self-described journeyman carpenter, worked sporadically from 2009 to 2011 at a house located on Snow Bear Drive in Anchorage. He suffered a “T12 burst fracture with incomplete spinal cord injury” when he fell from the house’s roof in 2011, and became permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fall. He filed a claim with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, and, because the property owner for whom he worked had no workers’ compensation insurance, the Workers’ Compensation Guaranty Fund was joined to the workers’ compensation case. The Fund disputed whether the property owner for whom the carpenter worked was an “employer” as defined in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act and contended the worker’s intoxication caused the accident. The Board decided the injury was compensable based on two findings: (1) the property owner was engaged in a real-estate-related “business or industry” and (2) the worker’s alleged intoxication did not proximately cause the accident. The Fund appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission; the Commission reversed because, in its view, the Board applied an incorrect legal test in determining whether the property owner was an employer and no evidence in the record could support a determination that the property owner was engaged in a “business or industry” at the time of the injury. The Commission decided the intoxication issue was not ripe for review. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, finding the Board did not legally err and substantial evidence supported its employment-status decision. The matter was remanded to the Commission for consideration of the intoxication issue. View "Adams v. Alaska Workers Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund" on Justia Law

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In August 2015, Kiel Cavitt was working for D&D Services, repairing a motor home’s windshield, when he fell from a scaffold onto concrete and fractured his right elbow. He suffered what was known as a “terrible triad” fracture, which had three components: dislocation of the elbow (which can result in ligament injury), fracture of the radial head, and fracture of the ulnar coronoid process. Cavitt had surgery which included an implanted prosthesis for the radial head. The surgeon testified that "typical" complications following terrible triad fracture surgery include pain, decreased range of motion, infection and the "need for further surgery." Cavitt appeared to recover from the surgery, but several months later, he began to experience "shooting electrical pain" in his elbow. Doctors could not determine specifically what was causing the pain, and attempted to manage the pain with medication. Cavitt was unable to return to his former work as a glazier because of restrictions on his use of the arm, and he started a new job delivering pizza. Cavitt sought an order from the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board requiring his employer to pay for medical care for the ongoing elbow issues for the rest of his life. The Board ordered only that the employer “pay future medical costs in accordance with the [Alaska Workers’ Compensation] Act,” and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The Alaska Supreme Court construed the Commission’s decision as requiring the employer to provide periodic surveillance examinations until another cause displaces the work injury as the substantial cause of the need for this continuing treatment, and with that construction - consistent with the medical testimony - the Court affirmed. View "Cavitt v. D&D Services, LLC d/b/a Novus Auto Glass" on Justia Law