Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Insurance Law
HDI-Gerling America Insurance Company v. Carlile Transportation Systems, Inc.
One night in February 2014 Carlile Transportation Systems, Inc. driver Bart Neal was driving a tractor-trailer southbound on the Dalton Highway. Neal could not steer properly at speeds above 35 miles per hour and decided to stop to put chains on his tires, partially blocking both traffic lanes, and, by his account, activated his flashers. Neal did not deploy reflective triangles. Eggor Enterprises, Inc. driver Joe Seurer was hauling a load of fuel northbound. By his account, Seurer saw lights in the distance but could not determine what they were. Seurer slowed his tractor-trailer from 50 to 35 miles per hour. About three-quarters of a mile from Neal, Seurer again saw lights and thought they might be from a pipeline maintenance truck stopped off the side of the road. He did not see reflective triangles or flashers. The road had an S-curve between Seurer and Neal. Until Seurer rounded the final curve, he did not realize Neal’s rig was blocking the road. Seurer applied his brakes about 300 feet from Neal, avoiding a serious collision but causing Seurer’s trailer to fall onto the side of the highway. The trailer’s fuel load spilled alongside the road. Eggor Enterprises’s insurer, HDI-Gerling American Insurance Company (HDI), paid over $3.5 million in cleanup costs to remediate the spill. HDI-Gerling, as subrogee of its trucking company client, sued Carlile for negligence. After a trial the jury determined that Carlile company’s driver was not negligent and returned a defense verdict. The insurance company appealed some of the superior court’s trial rulings. Seeing no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s entry of final judgment. View "HDI-Gerling America Insurance Company v. Carlile Transportation Systems, Inc." on Justia Law
Ball v. Allstate Insurance Company
Allstate Insurance Company denied underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage to Nathan Ball for an accident involving his own vehicle after determining he was not an insured person under his then-fiancée’s parents’ Allstate automobile insurance policy. Ball contended that his fiancée was a “policyholder” for purposes of her parents’ policy, a necessary predicate to his argument for UIM coverage under the policy. But the policy declarations page did not list “policyholders,” it listed only “named insureds” and “drivers.” The superior court granted summary judgment on grounds that the policy language was not ambiguous because “policyholder” referred only to the parents, the “named insureds,” that the fiancée as only a listed driver, had no objectively reasonable expectation that she was a policyholder, and, therefore, that Allstate did not have a duty to provide Ball UIM coverage. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed “policyholder” encompassed only the named insureds, not listed drivers, and therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Ball v. Allstate Insurance Company" on Justia Law
Hahn v. GEICO Choice Insurance Company
While sitting on his motorcycle at a stop light, Chad Hahn was thrown backwards when Franklin Townsend’s car failed to stop in time and struck the motorcycle. During settlement negotiations in the suit that followed, Hahn sought payment under Townsend’s underinsured motorist(UIM) insurance policy. Hahn argued that he was an insured occupant of Townsend’s car because he landed on the car after the impact and that Townsend’s liability insurance would not cover the full extent of his damages, rendering Townsend underinsured. Townsend’s insurer, GEICO Choice Insurance Company (GEICO), sued for a declaratory judgment that no UIM coverage was available. Hahn answered, raising a number of affirmative defenses including that GEICO’s declaratory judgment action was not ripe and that the court therefore lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Hahn also filed a counterclaim for a declaratory judgment that UIM coverage was available to him, and asserted third-party claims against Townsend, seeking to join him as a necessary party and a real party in interest. The superior court concluded that it had subject matter jurisdiction, granted summary judgment and a declaratory judgment in GEICO’s favor, and dismissed the third-party claims against Townsend. Hahn appealed; finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Hahn v. GEICO Choice Insurance Company" on Justia Law
Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Gonzalez
An insured sued her auto insurer and one of its adjusters, alleging that the insurer breached the insurance contract and committed tortious bad faith by withholding underinsured motorist benefits and that the adjuster negligently handled her claim for those benefits. The insurer then paid all available underinsured motorist benefits to the insured, including interest. The insured continued her tort claims, alleging additional financial and emotional harm from the delayed benefits payment. The insured proposed a jury instruction addressing the effect of the insurer’s belated payment, but the superior court rejected that instruction. After trial the jury determined that: (1) the insurer had acted in bad faith, but its conduct was not a substantial factor in causing the insured’s asserted harm; and (2) the adjuster had not been negligent. The superior court subsequently ordered the jury to award the insured nominal damages. The jury then awarded the insured $2 in nominal damages and later awarded $450,000 in punitive damages. The superior court awarded the insured prevailing party costs and attorney’s fees against the insurer. The court also awarded the adjuster prevailing party attorney’s fees against the insured. The court rejected the insured’s request that judgment against the insurer be entered nunc pro tunc to the date of the jury verdict so that post-judgment interest on the punitive damages award would start earlier. The insurer appealed the nominal and punitive damages awards and the prevailing party determination. The insured cross-appealed the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award, the jury’s failure to award compensatory damages, the court’s rejection of the insured’s proposed jury instruction, and the court’s refusal to enter judgment effective from the jury verdict date. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed in all respects save the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award: that was remanded for further proceedings. View "Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Gonzalez" on Justia Law
Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Darrow
An employee continued to work for over ten years after a job-related knee injury but had multiple surgeries on her injured knee. Over time, her employer made several permanent partial impairment payments, and she was eventually determined to be permanently and totally disabled because of the work injury. She began to receive Social Security disability at about the same time she was classified as permanently and totally disabled for workers’ compensation. Her employer asked the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board to allow two offsets to its payment of permanent total disability (PTD) compensation: one related to Social Security disability benefits and one related to the earlier permanent partial impairment (PPI) payments. The Board established a Social Security offset and permitted the employer to deduct the amount of previously paid PPI. The employee appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, arguing that the Board had improperly applied one of its regulations in allowing the PPI offset and had incorrectly calculated the amount of the Social Security offset. She also brought a civil suit against the State challenging the validity of the regulation. The State intervened in the Commission appeal; the lawsuit was dismissed. The Commission reversed the Board’s calculation of the Social Security offset and affirmed the Board’s order permitting the PPI offset. The employer appealed the Commission’s Social Security offset decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, and the employee cross- appealed the PPI offset. The Court affirmed that part of the Commission’s decision reversing the Board’s calculation of the Social Security disability offset and reversed that part of the Commission’s decision permitting an offset for permanent partial impairment benefits. The case was remanded back to the Commission for further proceedings. View "Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Darrow" on Justia Law
Burnett v. Government Employee Ins. Co.
A driver lost control of his truck and crashed into a cabin, causing property damage and personal injuries to the cabin owner. The cabin owner brought suit against both the driver and the driver’s insurance company, alleging in part that the insurance company subsequently took charge of and negligently handled the fuel spill cleanup on the cabin owner’s property. The superior court granted the insurer summary judgment, concluding as a matter of law that the insurer could not owe the cabin owner an actionable duty. The cabin owner appealed, arguing that Alaska case law did not preclude a duty in this context. The Supreme Court agreed with the cabin owner and therefore reversed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment. View "Burnett v. Government Employee Ins. Co." 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
Attorneys Liability Protection Society, Inc. v. Ingaldson Fitzgerald, P.C.
The Ninth Circuit federal Court of Appeals certified two questions of Alaska law to the State Supreme Court. Ingaldson Fitzgerald was an Alaska law firm. Attorneys Liability Protection Society, Inc. (ALPS) was a Montana insurance company and risk-retention group. From April 29, 2007, to April 29, 2008, ALPS insured Ingaldson Fitzgerald. Ingaldson Fitzgerald’s insurance policy with ALPS insured the firm against claims arising from “an act, error or omission in professional services that were or should have been rendered by [Ingaldson Fitzgerald].” The policy expressly excluded from coverage any claims arising from conversion or disputes over fees. The policy also contained a provision providing that Ingaldson Fitzgerald would reimburse ALPS for fees and costs ALPS incurred in defending non-covered claims. In 2008 the bankruptcy trustee for the bankrupt estate of a former client of Ingaldson Fitzgerald, in conjunction with a separate former client of the firm, brought a claim against the firm arising out of Ingaldson Fitzgerald’s actions in disbursing from and withdrawing fees and costs against a retainer. The former client and the trustee sought recovery of that retainer, and asserted claims against Ingaldson Fitzgerald for, among other things, restitution, disgorgement, and conversion. The Ninth Circuit asked: (1) whether Alaska law prohibited enforcement of a policy provision entitling an insurer to reimbursement of fees and costs incurred by the insurer defending claims under a reservation of rights, where (a) the insurer explicitly reserved the right to seek such reimbursement in its offer to tender a defense provided by independent counsel, (b) the insured accepted the defense subject to the reservation of rights, and (c) the claims were later determined to be excluded from coverage under the policy; and (2) if yes, then did Alaska law prohibit enforcement of a policy provision entitling an insurer to reimbursement of fees and costs incurred by the insurer defending claims under a reservation of rights, where (a) the insurer explicitly reserved the right to seek such reimbursement in its offer to tender a defense provided by independent counsel, (b) the insured accepted the defense subject to the reservation of rights, and (c) it is later determined that the duty to defend never arose under the policy because there was no possibility of coverage? The Alaska Supreme Court answered both certified questions “yes.” View "Attorneys Liability Protection Society, Inc. v. Ingaldson Fitzgerald, P.C." on Justia Law
Posted in: Insurance Law
Municipality of Anchorage v. Stenseth
Lee Stenseth was injured at work many years ago. He and his employer, the Municipality of Anchorage, entered into a compromise and release agreement (C&R) in August 1996 in which Stenseth waived all future benefits except medical benefits in exchange for $37,000. Stenseth retired from the Municipality in 1996, but he continued to receive medical benefits for his work-related injury, including narcotic pain medication. Ten years later, Stenseth was charged with multiple felonies related to selling or delivering narcotics that he had acquired, some from forged prescriptions modeled on the prescriptions for his work-related injury. Stenseth pleaded guilty to a number of felonies and served time in jail. He was released in June 2010. The Municipality sought to terminate future workers’ compensation benefits and be reimbursed for the benefits it paid out, alleging that Stenseth obtained those benefits by making a false statement or misrepresentation. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board dismissed the Municipality’s fraud petition after deciding that the parties had reached an enforceable settlement. The Municipality appealed the dismissal, arguing that any settlement of its fraud petition was void because the settlement did not meet the requirements set out in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act and the Board’s regulations. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The Municipality appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing that the Commission’s interpretation of the statute was incorrect and that the Commission incorrectly interpreted our decisions about estoppel. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Municipality of Anchorage v. Stenseth" on Justia Law
Devine v. Great Divide Insurance Company
A man working at a concrete-pouring job was assaulted by another worker at the job site. The injured man filed a lawsuit against the assailant and both the concrete-pouring company and its owner. Although the company’s commercial general liability insurer initially provided a defense attorney in the negligence action, the insurer later brought a declaratory judgment action alleging that the incident fell within the policy’s employee-exclusion clause. The superior court granted summary judgment to the insurance company. The Supreme Court affirmed. "[B]ecause courts look to workers’ compensation law to give meaning to the phrase 'arising out of and in the course of employment' in workers’ compensation/employers’ liability policies, and because commercial general liability policies are designed to avoid the existence of an overlap or a gap between workers’ compensation/employers’ liability and commercial general liability policies, sister jurisdictions interpret the same phrase in employee-exclusion clauses in commercial general liability policies in light of the identical language in workers’ compensation statutes. We have found no case law holding that the contractual phrase 'arising out of and in the course of employment' in commercial general liability exclusions should be interpreted differently from the identical phrase in workers’ compensation statutes. For purposes of this appeal, we will use workers’ compensation case law to interpret the meaning of the commercial general liability policy’s exclusion of coverage for bodily injury "arising out of and in the course of employment.'" The employer did not purchase workers' compensation coverage. And in reading the general liability policy in question, the Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in determining that the incident here fell within the employee-exclusion claim. View "Devine v. Great Divide Insurance Company" on Justia Law