Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Injury Law
Marshall v. Peter
Mid-afternoon on an icy early March day, plaintiff Michele Marshall was stopped at a stoplight preparing to turn left from the outside turn lane. Defendant Matthew Peter testified that he came to a complete stop about one-half car length behind her. After about 30 seconds, the light turned green, Marshall began to move forward, and Peter released his foot from the brake. But Marshall stopped sooner than Peter expected; Peter returned his foot to the brake, attempted to stop, and slid into Marshall’s vehicle. He testified that his car “just tapped the back of her car” at a speed that “couldn’t [have] be[en] more than three miles an hour.” He had yet to place his foot on the accelerator. Marshall contended that no reasonable juror could have found Peter not negligent and that the superior court therefore should have granted her motion for a directed verdict on liability. After review of this matter, the Supreme Court concluded that the jury reasonably found the driver behind not negligent, and therefore affirmed the denial of the motion. View "Marshall v. Peter" on Justia Law
Flint Hills Resources Alaska, LLC v. Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc.
Williams Alaska Petroleum owned the North Pole refinery until 2004. Williams knew that the then-unregulated chemical sulfolane was present in refinery property groundwater, but it did not know that the sulfolane had migrated off the refinery property via underground water flow. Flint Hills Resources Alaska bought the North Pole refinery from Williams in 2004 pursuant to a contract that contained detailed terms regarding environmental liabilities, indemnification, and damages caps. Almost immediately the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation informed Flint Hills that sulfolane was to be a regulated chemical and that Flint Hills needed to find the source of the sulfolane in the groundwater. The Department contacted Flint Hills again in 2006. Flint Hills’s environmental contractor repeatedly warned Flint Hills that sulfolane could be leaving the refinery property and that more work was necessary to ascertain the extent of the problem. In 2008, Flint Hills drilled perimeter wells and discovered the sulfolane was migrating beyond its property and had contaminated drinking water in North Pole. A North Pole resident sued Flint Hills and Williams, and Flint Hills cross-claimed against Williams for indemnification. After extensive motion practice the superior court dismissed all of Flint Hills’s claims against Williams as time-barred. Flint Hills appealed. After review, the Supreme Court held that the superior court correctly applied the contract’s damages cap provision, but concluded that the court erred in finding Flint Hills’s contractual indemnification claims and part of its statutory claims were time-barred. The Court also affirmed the court’s dismissal of Flint Hills’s equitable claims. View "Flint Hills Resources Alaska, LLC v. Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc." on Justia Law
Sellers v. Kurdilla
Several men were in a car that rear-ended the plaintiff Linda Sellers' vehicle. She sued the car’s owner, believing he had been driving. The car’s owner moved to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis of an affidavit from a second man, who claimed he was driving at the time of the accident. Plaintiff amended her complaint to name both men. The second man then moved to dismiss the claim against him, arguing that under Alaska Civil Rule 15(c) plaintiff’s amended complaint did not relate back to the date of her initial filing and the claim was therefore barred by the statute of limitations. The district court agreed and dismissed the claim. Plaintiff proceeded to trial against the car’s owner, who defended on grounds that he had not been driving. The jury found against plaintiff, who then appealed to the superior court, arguing that the district court erred when it dismissed her claim against the second man. The superior court affirmed the district court’s decision. After granting review of the matter, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded plaintiff’s amended complaint met the requirements for relation back under Rule 15(c), and therefore reversed the superior court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings. View "Sellers v. Kurdilla" on Justia Law
Cornelison v. TIG Insurance
Floyd Cornelison injured his back at work in 1996 while shoveling dirt. He had back surgery later that year, but it did little to improve his condition. The Board found he was permanently and totally disabled (PTD) in 2001 under the "odd-lot doctrine." TIG Insurance, the workers’ compensation insurer for Floyd’s employer, did not contest that he was PTD; it reclassified his workers’ compensation benefits as PTD in 2000. Floyd also received Social Security disability payments, and the employer received an offset for those payments. The employer and TIG challenged Cornelison's continuing eligibility for workers’ compensation, relying on surreptitious video surveillance and a doctor’s report issued after the doctor viewed an edited surveillance video. Cornelison and his wife sued TIG and a number of others involved in the attempt to terminate benefits; they alleged several causes of action, contending that the video had been purposely edited to provide a false picture of the employee’s physical abilities and that the defendants had participated to varying degrees in a scheme to defraud the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. The trial court granted summary judgment or dismissal as to all of the defendants on all counts. After review of the matter, the Supreme Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part. The Court concluded the Cornelisons provided enough evidence to show that a material factual dispute existed about the accuracy of the edited videos and the manner in which the videos were created. They also presented more than generalized claims of emotional distress. Because the superior court failed to address the issues in dispute in the IIED claim against certain persons involved with the making of the videos, we reverse the grant of summary judgment on this claim and remand to the superior court. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Cornelison v. TIG Insurance" on Justia Law
Huit v. Ashwater Burns, Inc.
Before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission was created, an Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decision could be appealed to the superior court, and a party dissatisfied with the superior court’s final resolution of the case then could appeal to the Supreme Court. Construing the appellate rules, the Supreme Court decided in "Borough of Juneau v. Thibodeau," "a decision of a superior court, acting as an intermediate appellate court, which reverses . . . the decision of an administrative agency and remands for further proceedings, is a non-final order of the superior court." Joseph Huit worked for Ashwater Burns, Inc. in 2010. Early in November he was working on a remodel project, and as part of the job he removed a water-damaged vanity from a bathroom. As he was carrying the vanity he scratched his abdomen on a protruding drywall screw; he showed the scratch to some people at the job site, including his brother Steven, but did not file a report of injury. According to Huit at some point later in November the scratch appeared to heal. In early December, Huit felt ill at work, so he went to the emergency room. He would later be diagnosed with “spontaneous endocarditis” with metastatic lesions growing on his spleen, kidneys, brain and heart. By January 2011 Huit had severe aortic regurgitation, and in February he underwent aortic valve replacement surgery. Huit first thought about the possibility that the infection was work related while he was hospitalized; he explained that after the doctors told him he had an infection, he remembered the scratch and notified his employer. Ashwater Burns filed a report of injury on December 21 and later controverted benefits, relying on a cardiologist’s opinion formed after reviewing Huit’s medical records. This appeal presented the Supreme Court's first opportunity to consider whether "Thibodeau," should apply to Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission decisions. After review, the Court concluded that it should. This appeal also presented a first opportunity to consider, at least in part, the legislature’s 2005 amendments to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s presumption analysis. The Court reversed the Commission’s application of that analysis in this case and modified its earlier precedent. View "Huit v. Ashwater Burns, Inc." on Justia Law
Luther v. Lander
In November 2010, Stevie Lander was driving on an icy road. Her vehicle slid into a Bonnie Luther's car. Although Luther reported no injuries at the scene of the accident, that evening she went to the emergency room for head and neck pain, and within weeks she began to suffer from lower back pain that prevented her from returning to her job as a flight attendant. Luther attributed her pain to the accident and sued Lander for negligence two years later. Lander admitted negligence and made an offer of judgment, which Luther did not accept. The case proceeded to trial in 2014, and the jury awarded Luther a total of $3,259 for past medical expenses, past wage and benefit loss, and past non-economic losses. The superior court granted attorney’s fees to Lander under Alaska Rule of Civil Procedure 68(b) and denied Luther’s motion for a new trial. Luther appealed, arguing that the superior court erred by denying her a new trial based on inadequate damages and by excluding evidence of the amount of payments for medical treatment made by Luther’s insurer. She also challenged the superior court’s decision to grant attorney’s fees based on billing records that were filed under seal. After review, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court erred in excluding evidence of payments made for Luther’s medical treatment by her insurer. But because that error was harmless, the Court affirmed the final judgment entered by the superior court. View "Luther v. Lander" on Justia Law
Timothy G. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Services
Timothy G. alleged he was abused by his stepfather repeatedly between 1997 and 2006. In 2006, Timothy reported the abuse to his mother. She took Timothy and his four siblings to a shelter, sought a protective order against the stepfather, and instituted divorce proceedings. The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) then substantiated the report of harm, removed the children from their mother’s care, and placed them in foster care. In 2012, Timothy filed a complaint naming OCS and his stepfather as defendants. He sought compensatory damages from OCS, claiming that “[a]s a direct and proximate consequence of [OCS’s] breach of [its] dut[y] of care, [he] suffered physical injury, psychological and emotional injury and distress, psychological torment, torture and sexual abuse, pain and suffering, and resultant loss of earning capacity.” Timothy alleged that OCS had investigated at least ten reports of harm involving him and his siblings, but had taken no action. In response to OCS' motion to dismiss, Timothy G. asserted that the statute of limitations had been tolled on his claim because he was mentally incompetent following those years of abuse. The superior court held an evidentiary hearing on this issue and concluded that Timothy had failed to prove that he was incompetent. On appeal, Timothy argued that the superior court should have ruled in his favor if he produced more than a scintilla of evidence to support his assertion. But the Supreme Court concluded that the superior court applied the proper burden of proof and the proper test for competency, and that the court did not clearly err in finding that Timothy did not prove his incompetence. View "Timothy G. v. Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law
Vandenberg v. Dept. of Health & Social Services
After a work-related injury left appellant Laurie Vandenberg (a nurse) with a permanent partial impairment, she applied for reemployment benefits. The rehabilitation specialist assigned to her case used two job descriptions to describe one of her former jobs because the specialist did not think that a single job description adequately described that former job. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that only one job description was needed and that appellant retained the physical capacity to perform the functions of that job description; it therefore denied her reemployment benefits. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Appellant appealed, arguing that the Board erred in selecting only one job description because the job description it selected did not adequately describe the job she held. The Supreme Court agreed and reversed the Commission’s decision. View "Vandenberg v. Dept. of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law
In Re T.V.
T.V., a minor, was struck by a car in 2012. T.V.’s father, Jack Vinson, hired counsel and petitioned the superior court on T.V.’s behalf for approval of insurance settlements related to that accident. Jack advised the court that the funds from the settlements would be placed in a special needs trust administered by the Foundation of the Arc of Anchorage for T.V.’s care. The superior court approved the settlements on the recommendation of a magistrate judge. Slightly more than one year after the approval of the petition, Jack filed a motion requesting that the settlement funds be removed from the trust and returned to him. The magistrate judge overseeing the matter recommended that the superior court deny the motion because the trust was not a party to the minor settlement proceeding, but the court did not rule on the magistrate judge’s recommendation. A second magistrate judge conducted a hearing and made another recommendation to deny Jack’s motion. The superior court approved the denial, and Jack appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that Jack’s precise claims were unclear: his underlying motion to the superior court sought to have the Arc provide the settlement money to him with interest. But Jack’s notice of appeal stated that he was appealing the order approving the petition for minor settlement. Thus, the question Jack presented was whether the superior court properly denied his motion. After review, and construing Jack's pro se claims liberally, the Court concluded that the superior court did not err in denying Jack’s motion to remove the settlement funds from the trust and return them to him. Because the gravamen of Jack’s motion was a claim against the Arc of Anchorage and because the Arc of Anchorage was not a party to the minor’s probate case, the superior court did not have jurisdiction over the Arc and correctly denied Jack’s motion. View "In Re T.V." on Justia Law
Martinez-Morales v. Martens
This appeal arose from an accident in a parking lot in which a vehicle driven by Ronda Martens struck pedestrian Juan Martinez-Morales as he crossed the lot. A jury found that Martens was not negligent, and the superior court entered final judgment in her favor, awarding her costs and attorney’s fees. Martinez-Morales appealed, arguing that the superior court erred by giving incorrect jury instructions on causation and damages, failing to give a multiple-cause jury instruction, declining to give Martinez-Morales’ proposed jury instructions on the standard of care, and improperly admitting testimony from Martens’s accident reconstruction expert. After review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court concluded that Martinez-Morales’s arguments relating to jury instructions on causation and damages were moot and that the superior court did not err in its jury instructions on negligence or in its admission of expert testimony. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court in all respects. View "Martinez-Morales v. Martens" on Justia Law