Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Personal Injury
Titus v. Alaska, Department of Corrections, et al.
The personal representative of an estate brought a medical malpractice claim against a company that provided the decedent emergency room medical care shortly before his death. The superior court granted summary judgment dismissing the estate’s claim against the company, reasoning that the estate’s board-certified expert was not qualified to testify about the relevant standard of care. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding the physician, licensed under AS 09.20.185(a)(1), met the requirement of AS 09.20.185(a)(3) because a variety of fields of medicine, directly related to the matter at issue. View "Titus v. Alaska, Department of Corrections, et al." on Justia Law
Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough
The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act applied a two-year limitations period to claims for “compensation for disability.” In 1988, the legislature reconfigured one type of compensation — for permanent partial disability — as compensation for permanent partial impairment. The claimant here argued this amendment exempted claims for impairment compensation from the statute of limitations. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed: because the statutory text contains ambiguity and the legislative history evinced no intent to exempt impairment claims from the statute of limitations, the Court ruled that claims for impairment compensation were subject to the Act’s two-year limitations period. A secondary issue in this case was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board properly denied paralegal costs for work related to other claims. The applicable regulation required a claim for paralegal costs be supported by the paralegal’s own affidavit attesting to the work performed. To this, the Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s argument that this regulation was contrary to statute and the constitution. View "Murphy v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law
Best v. Fairbanks North Star Borough
A minor was severely injured in an all-terrain vehicle collision in which the other driver was at fault. The minor had medical benefits coverage through a health care plan provided by her father’s employer, the Fairbanks North Star Borough. As allowed by the terms of the plan, the Borough refused to pay the minor’s medical bills until she signed an agreement that included a waiver of certain defenses to the Borough’s subrogation rights, such as the common fund and made-whole doctrines. The minor refused to sign the agreement without reservation and filed suit, seeking a declaration that the Borough could not condition payment of her medical bills on her signature. The superior court decided on summary judgment that the Borough’s health care plan was not a true insurance plan and that, regardless of whether it was interpreted as an insurance policy or an ordinary contract, the parties could lawfully reject subrogation defenses. The minor appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the health care plan was a bargained-for employee benefit rather than a true insurance policy, and that the superior court’s interpretation of it was correct. The Court therefore affirmed the superior court's judgment. View "Best v. Fairbanks North Star Borough" on Justia Law
Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District
Appellant Beverly Sumpter worked as a school aide. She reported an injury to her cervical spine after she repositioned a disabled student in his wheelchair. Sumpter had significant preexisting cervical spine problems. Doctors disagreed about whether the incident she described could have aggravated these problems and if so for how long. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that her work was not the substantial cause of her ongoing disability and need for medical care, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Sumpter appealed, contending that the Board and Commission applied incorrect legal standards and that the Board failed to make findings about material and contested issues. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Sumpter v. Fairbanks North Star Borough School District" on Justia Law
Culliton v. Hope Community Resources, Inc.
The estate of a severely disabled woman sued her in-home care providers for negligence in causing her death. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the providers, ruling that the estate was required to support its negligence claim with expert testimony, and failed to do so. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court held that the estate was not required to present expert testimony to establish a breach of the duty of care because the estate’s theory of fault was one of ordinary negligence that did not turn on the exercise of professional skill or judgment. “The estate’s theory of causation, by contrast, is complex and must be supported by the opinion of a medical expert. But the treating physician’s deposition testimony is sufficient evidence of causation to survive summary judgment.” The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings. View "Culliton v. Hope Community Resources, Inc." on Justia Law
Alaska Department of Corrections v. Wozniak
After initially disputing that a corrections officer was permanently and totally disabled from injuries suffered at work, the State conceded his disability status. The parties did not enter into a written settlement or stipulation because they disagreed about the amount of attorney’s fees the State should pay the officer’s attorney. After a hearing the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board awarded attorney’s fees under AS 23.30.145(a) in two parts: it awarded a specific amount of fees for work up to the time of the hearing and statutory minimum fees of 10% of ongoing benefits as long as the officer received permanent total disability benefits. The State appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, which affirmed the Board’s decision because in the Commission’s view the award was not manifestly unreasonable. The State then appealed the Commission’s decision to us. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Wozniak" on Justia Law
Allstate Insurance Company v. Harbour
The primary issue in consolidated appeals was the scope of an automobile insurance policy’s arbitration provision. Two insureds with identical Allstate Insurance Company medical payments and uninsured/underinsured motorist (UIM) insurance coverage settled with their respective at-fault drivers for applicable liability insurance policy limits and then made medical payments and UIM benefits claims to Allstate. Allstate and the insureds were unable to resolve the UIM claims and went to arbitration as the policy required. The arbitration panels initially answered specific questions submitted about the insureds’ accident-related damages. At the insureds’ requests but over Allstate’s objections, the panels later calculated what the panels believed Allstate ultimately owed the insureds under their medical payments and UIM coverages and issued final awards. Allstate filed superior court suits to confirm the initial damages calculations, reject the final awards as outside the arbitration panels’ authority, and have the court determine the total amounts payable to the insureds under their policies. The judge assigned to both suits affirmed the final arbitration awards; Allstate appealed both decisions. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the arbitration panels had no authority to determine anything beyond the insureds’ damages arising from their accidents and because Allstate withheld its consent for the panels to determine anything else, the Court reversed the superior court’s decisions and judgments. The Supreme Court also reversed some aspects of the superior court’s separate analysis and rulings on legal issues that the panels improperly decided. Given (1) the arbitration panels’ damages calculations and (2) the Supreme Court's clarification of legal issues presented, the cases were remanded for the superior court to determine the amount, if any, Allstate had to pay each insured under their medical payments and UIM coverages. View "Allstate Insurance Company v. Harbour" on Justia Law
Espindola v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc.
A cannery worker reported two injuries: one to his back and one to his shoulder. He suffered these injuries at different times but while working for the same employer. The employer paid some medical benefits for both injuries but eventually challenged its obligation to provide further care. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied the worker’s claim for more medical benefits, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The worker appealed pro se. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the Commission properly affirmed the Board’s decision as to the back injury, but that the Board’s findings as to the shoulder injury lacked adequate support in the record. The Commission’s decision was therefore reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. View "Espindola v. Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc." on Justia Law
Beistline v. Footit, and Banner Health Inc., D/B/A Fairbanks Memorial Hospital
A husband and wife sued medical care providers after the wife suffered a seizure, allegedly due to a doctor’s decision to abruptly discontinue her medication. The superior court granted summary judgment to the medical care providers, ruling that the couple’s only expert witness, a pharmacist, was unqualified to provide testimony about the matter at issue because he was not a doctor of internal medicine and was not board-certified in the doctor’s field or specialty. The couple appealed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court concurred with the trial court that the pharmacist’s testimony was not sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact about the relevant standard of care. The Court therefore affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the health care providers. View "Beistline v. Footit, and Banner Health Inc., D/B/A Fairbanks Memorial Hospital" on Justia Law
Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services v. Thomas et al.
An Alaska State Commission for Human Rights (State) employee with preexisting medical conditions was involved in a work-related motor vehicle accident in January 2017. The employee consulted with Dr. Teresa Bormann two days after the accident; Dr. Bormann referred the employee to chiropractic treatment. After several month of treatment, Dr. Bormann referred the employee to physical therapy at United Physical Therapy (UPT) for chronic neck pain and headache. After an evaluation UPT recommended eight weeks of twice weekly physical therapy. Dr. Bormann endorsed the treatment plan, and the employee’s symptoms improved enough that she reduced her physical therapy visits to once a week beginning in mid-January. She saw UPT three times in February 2018. Payment for these February visits became the main dispute before the Board. The State arranged an employer’s medical evaluation (EME) with a neurologist and an orthopedist. The EME doctors diagnosed the employee with a cervical strain caused by the accident as well as several conditions they considered preexisting or unrelated to the work injury. After the State filed a retroactive controversion of medical treatment, the employee’s healthcare provider filed a workers’ compensation claim seeking payment for services it provided before the controversion was filed. The State disputed its liability for payment, and after several prehearing conferences, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board set a hearing on the merits of the provider’s claim. The Board ordered the State to pay the provider approximately $510.00 for the services. The State appealed, disputing several procedural aspects of the decision, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska, Department of Health and Social Services v. Thomas et al." on Justia Law