Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Construction Law
Leona Seal, Personal Representative of the Estate of Nicholson J. Tinker v. Mark C. Welty D/B/A North Country Services
The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska was asked to determine whether the question of a deceased worker's status as an employee or independent contractor under the Alaska Worker's Compensation Act should be determined by a jury or a judge. The lawsuit was initiated by the estate of Nicholson Tinker, a worker who was killed in a construction accident while working for Mark Welty, doing business as North Country Services. Welty had no workers' compensation coverage at the time of the accident. Tinker's estate argued that he was an employee and that under the Act, Welty was presumed negligent because he had no compensation coverage. Welty argued that Tinker was an independent contractor, hence the Act did not apply.The superior court decided that the question of employee status was an issue for the jury to decide. The estate appealed this decision, arguing that the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Benson v. City of Nenana determined that a judge, not a jury, should decide the issue of a worker's status under the Act.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska agreed with the estate, holding that the superior court must determine whether Tinker was an employee or independent contractor under the Act as a preliminary issue before trial. The Court reasoned that the applicability of the Act is a legal determination with factual underpinnings that the court should decide as a preliminary matter. The Court also noted that determining the employee status promptly is significant due to its potential impact on basic issues such as the type of action a party can bring or the burden of proof for negligence. Therefore, the Court reversed the superior court’s order that the jury decides the issue of employee status and remanded for further proceedings. View "Leona Seal, Personal Representative of the Estate of Nicholson J. Tinker v. Mark C. Welty D/B/A North Country Services" on Justia Law
BBFM Engineers, Inc. v. McDonald
In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the petitioner, Eric McDonald, an employee of a subcontractor, suffered injuries during the renovation of a high school. He sued Architects Alaska, Inc. and BBFM Engineers, Inc., alleging that they negligently failed to exercise reasonable care in the design, supervision, implementation, and specifications of the demolition of the renovation project. Before trial, the parties’ attorneys discussed the possibility of a settlement, and the defendants moved to enforce a “walk-away” settlement they claimed had been reached through email correspondence. McDonald, unrepresented at this point, did not file a substantive response to the defendants’ motion. The superior court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the case.About a year later, McDonald moved for relief from judgment under Alaska Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), arguing that he had never given his attorney authority to settle the case. A different superior court judge granted the motion, finding that factual issues precluded summary judgment on whether a settlement agreement existed, that the earlier dismissal was erroneous as a law matter, and that extraordinary circumstances otherwise entitled McDonald to Rule 60(b) relief. The defendants petitioned for review, and the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska reversed the ruling on the ground that McDonald’s Rule 60(b) motion was not filed within a reasonable time. View "BBFM Engineers, Inc. v. McDonald" on Justia Law
Alaska Dept. of Revenue v. Nabors International Finance, Inc. et al.
The Alaska Department of Revenue audited a non-resident corporation doing business in Alaska. The Department issued a deficiency assessment based in part on an Alaska tax statute requiring an income tax return to include certain foreign corporations affiliated with the taxpaying corporation. The taxpayer exhausted its administrative remedies and then appealed to the superior court, arguing that the tax statute the Department applied was facially unconstitutional because: (1) it violated the dormant Commerce Clause by discriminating against foreign commerce based on countries’ corporate income tax rates; (2) it violated the Due Process Clause by being arbitrary and irrational; and (3) it violated the Due Process Clause by failing to provide notice of what affiliates a tax return must include, and therefore is void for vagueness. The superior court rejected the first two arguments but ruled in the taxpayer’s favor on the third argument. The Department appealed, claiming the superior court erred by concluding that the statute was void for vagueness in violation of the Due Process Clause. The taxpayer cross-appealed, asserting that the court erred by concluding that the statute did not violate the Commerce Clause and was not arbitrary. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s decision that the statute was facially unconstitutional on due process grounds, and affirmed the court’s decision that it otherwise was facially constitutional. View "Alaska Dept. of Revenue v. Nabors International Finance, Inc. et al." on Justia Law
Smallwood Creek, Inc. v. Build Alaska, LLC
A general contractor hired a subcontractor to provide material for a project at a state park. After the project was completed, the general contractor sent the subcontractor a check described as “final payment.” The subcontractor, believing it was owed more, initially refused to accept the check. Months later, the subcontractor cashed the check but then attempted to repay the amount to the general contractor. The general contractor refused repayment, claiming that the subcontractor’s cashing the check constituted satisfaction of its claim of payment. The superior court granted summary judgment to the general contractor, ruling that the evidence established an accord and satisfaction. The Alaska Supreme Court held there was a genuine dispute of material fact about two requirements for an accord and satisfaction: whether the payment was tendered in good faith, and whether there was a bona fide dispute about the amount owed. The superior court's judgment was therefore vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Smallwood Creek, Inc. v. Build Alaska, LLC" on Justia Law
Resqsoft, Inc. v. Protech Solutions, Inc.
The superior court dismissed a subcontractor’s claims against the contractor because a venue provision in the subcontract required that litigation be conducted in another state. The superior court also dismissed the subcontractor’s unjust enrichment claim against the project owner for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The subcontractor appealed the dismissals; finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decisions. View "Resqsoft, Inc. v. Protech Solutions, Inc." on Justia Law
Dat Luong DBA LVDH Construction v. Western Surety Co.
The employee of a subcontractor on a state public works project sued the prime contractor’s surety bond for unpaid labor under Alaska’s Little Miller Act. The trial court ruled the employee failed to give notice to the contractor within the statutorily required 90 days of his last date of labor on the project. The trial court entered a directed verdict against the employee. The employee appealed to the superior court, which denied the appeal, and then petitioned the Alaska Supreme Court for hearing. This case presented two issues of first impression: (1) how to define “labor;” and (2) whether “notice” was effective on the date of mailing or the date of receipt. Under the Little Miller Act, the Supreme Court defined “labor” as work that was “necessary to and forwards” the project secured by the payment bond, and held the effective date of “notice” to be the date notice is sent via registered mail. The superior court judgment denying the employee's appeal was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Dat Luong DBA LVDH Construction v. Western Surety Co." on Justia Law
Alaska, Dept. of Transportation & Public Facilities v. Osborne Construction Co.
In August 2013 the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT) entered into a contract with Osborne Construction Company to upgrade the Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting building at the Fairbanks International Airport to withstand damage in the event of an earthquake. The DOT appealed a superior court decision reversing the agency's decision in an administrative appeal. The agency denied a contractor’s claim for additional compensation because the claim was filed outside the filing period allowed by the contract. After applying its independent judgment to interpret the contract, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the DOT that the contractor failed to file its claim within the period allowed. The Supreme Court therefore reversed the superior court’s decision and reinstated the agency’s. View "Alaska, Dept. of Transportation & Public Facilities v. Osborne Construction Co." on Justia Law
Lovely, et al. v Baker Hughes, Inc., et al.
A construction contractor’s employees were injured on the job and received workers’ compensation benefits from their employer. The workers later brought a negligence suit against three other corporations: the one that had entered into the construction contract with their employer, that corporation’s parent corporation, and an affiliated corporation that operated the facility under construction. The three corporations moved for summary judgment, arguing that all three were “project owners” potentially liable for the payment of workers’ compensation benefits and therefore were protected from liability under the exclusive liability provision of the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act. The superior court granted the motion, rejecting the workers’ argument that status as a “project owner” was limited to a corporation that had a contractual relationship with their employer. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded a project owner, for purposes of the Act, "must be someone who actually contracts with a person to perform specific work and enjoys the beneficial use of that work." Furthermore, the Court found the workers raised issues of material fact about which of the three corporate defendants satisfied this definition. Judgment was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Lovely, et al. v Baker Hughes, Inc., et al." on Justia Law
GeoTek Alaska, Inc., v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc.
An insolvent subcontractor failed to pay its sub-subcontractor, and the sub-subcontractor sought payment directly from the general contractor through arbitration. The general contractor declined to participate. The arbitrator awarded damages to the sub-subcontractor, who filed an action to confirm the award with the superior court. The sub-subcontractor also brought a negligence claim, contending that the general contractor knew of its subcontractor's financial instability and negligently failed to ensure that the sub-subcontractor would be paid. The superior court granted summary judgment to the general contractor on both the enforceability of the arbitration award and the viability of the negligence claim. The sub-subcontractor then appealed. After review, the Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the superior court correctly decided that whether the general contractor effectively exercised its contractual right to decline arbitration is an issue of arbitrability, and that the general contractor had no extra-contractual duty in tort to guarantee its subcontractor's payment obligations. View "GeoTek Alaska, Inc., v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc." on Justia Law
Posted in: Construction Law
North Pacific Erectors, Inc v. Alaska
The issue on appeal before the Supreme Court concerned a contract dispute between Appellant North Pacific Erectors, Inc. and the Alaska Department of Administration. North Pacific and the Department contracted for a renovation and asbestos removal project in a State office building. After work began, North Pacific requested additional payment for the asbestos removal, claiming there was a differing site condition that made the project more labor-intensive than it had expected. The Department denied the differing site condition claim, and North Pacific filed an administrative appeal. A hearing officer recommended that North Pacific was entitled to additional compensation. But the hearing officer's recommendation was rejected, and a final agency decision was issued denying North Pacific's claim for additional compensation. North Pacific challenged the agency decision in superior court, arguing that the agency decision was procedurally flawed and incorrectly resolved the contract issues. The superior court affirmed the agency decision. North Pacific appealed. The Supreme Court concluded that even if North Pacific could prevail on its differing site condition claim or its procedural claims, its failure to comply with express provisions of the contract would have barred recovery. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court's decision affirming the agency decision. View "North Pacific Erectors, Inc v. Alaska" on Justia Law