Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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A boiler exploded in a home owned by a nonprofit regional housing authority, severely injuring a man who lived there. He sued the housing authority in both contract and tort, claiming that his lease-purchase contract included a promise that the authority would inspect the boiler, which it failed to do with reasonable care. After the man dismissed his contract claim, the housing authority asked the court to decide as a matter of law that a breach of a contractual promise could not give rise to a tort claim. But the superior court allowed the man to proceed to trial on his tort claim, and the jury awarded over $3 million in damages, including over $1.5 million in noneconomic damages and separate awards to several of his family members for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The court reduced the man’s noneconomic damages award to $1 million because of a statutory damages cap, but it excluded the family members’ awards from the amount subject to the cap. The housing authority appealed, maintaining it should have been granted a judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the contract did not create a continuing legal duty to inspect the boiler with reasonable care. It also argued it should have been granted a new trial because it had established that the boiler explosion was caused by a product defect rather than negligent inspection. Finally, the authority argued the family members’ damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress should have been included in the amount subject to the statutory damages cap. The man cross-appealed, arguing that the damages cap violated due process because it failed to account for inflation or the severe nature of his physical injuries. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found no reversible error and affirmed the superior court's judgment on all issues. View "Association of Village Council Presidents Regional Housing Authority v. Mael, et al." on Justia Law

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The parties to this appeal disputed the sequence for applying the provisions when calculating compensation for injured employees; another provision applied a cost-of-living ratio only to out-of-state recipients. Richard Roberge injured his shoulder in May 2014 while working for ASRC Construction Holding Company; he continued working with accommodations until the job ended in November. Roberge then returned to his Idaho residence. ASRC paid him $834.85 weekly in temporary total disability compensation through mid-August 2015, calculated by adjusting the maximum weekly compensation rate by the prevailing cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) percentage for his residence. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded We conclude the Act required first applying the cost-of-living ratio and then applying the maximum rate. View "Roberge v. ASRC Construction Holding Company, et al." on Justia Law

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Ramsey Barton sued the City of Valdez after she was severely injured by falling from a tire swing overhanging a cliff in an undeveloped area of a city park. The swing was not built by the City, and Barton alleged the City was negligent in failing to remove it. The superior court assumed on summary judgment that the City had imputed knowledge of the swing, but because there was no evidence the City had a policy to inspect or remove hazards from undeveloped areas of the park, the City was entitled to discretionary function immunity. The court therefore dismissed Barton’s lawsuit against the City. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed, finding that there were "no conceivable policy reasons for declining to remove the unauthorized swing — a human-made hazard that was known, easily accessible, and simple to remove." The Supreme Court found that the failure to remove it was not protected by discretionary function immunity. View "Barton v. City of Valdez" on Justia Law

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After Lauren Bridges’ daughter S.B. was born severely disabled, Bridges sued the many healthcare providers involved in S.B.’s birth. When Bridges’s attorneys failed to timely oppose the defendants’ motions for summary judgment, the superior court granted summary judgment and then final judgment in favor of all defendants. Bridges then moved for relief from judgment under Alaska Civil Rule 60(b). The superior court found that Bridges' attorneys’ neglect was inexcusable, precluding relief under Rule 60(b)(1), but nonetheless granted relief under Rule 60(b)(6) to avoid injustice. The Alaska Supreme Court found the superior court did not abuse its discretion in finding the neglect of Bridges’s counsel inexcusable and denying relief under Rule 60(b)(1). But the Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s decision granting relief under Rule 60(b)(6). "An attorney’s neglect, whether excusable or inexcusable, cannot be grounds for relief from judgment under Rule 60(b)(6) unless the attorney abandons the client. Because that is not what the record shows, we reverse the superior court’s ruling and remand for entry of judgment in favor of the defendants." View "Chena Obstetrics and Gynecology, et al. v. Bridges" on Justia Law

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A patient sued a hospital after learning that a hospital employee intentionally disclosed the patient’s health information in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The patient alleged the disclosure breached the hospital’s contractual obligations to him. The superior court instructed the jury to return a verdict for the hospital if the jury found that the employee was not acting in the course and scope of employment when she disclosed the patient’s information. The jury so found, leading to judgment in the hospital’s favor. The Alaska Supreme Court found the jury instruction erroneously applied the rule of vicarious liability to excuse liability for breach of contract. "A party that breaches its contractual obligations is liable for breach regardless of whether the breach is caused by an employee acting outside the scope of employment, unless the terms of the contract excuse liability for that reason." The Court therefore reversed judgment and remanded for further proceedings, in particular to determine whether a contract existed between the patient and hospital and, if so, the contract’s terms governing patient health information. View "Guy v. Providence Health & Services Washington" on Justia Law

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Stephan “Craig” Mitchell suffered a work-related back injury in 1995. Since that time he had continuing back pain and received numerous medical interventions to try to treat the pain, including several surgeries. This appeal from the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission raised two issues: (1) whether the employer rebutted the presumption that the worker was permanently and totally disabled between 2004 and 2017 due to a back injury; and (2) whether the worker is entitled to compensation for a back surgery obtained without prior approval. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because the employer in this case failed to produce evidence of jobs that could accommodate the worker’s limitations, the employer failed to rebut the presumption that he was disabled. And because the surgery did not yield long­ term pain relief or functional improvement and because it entailed using a medical device in a way that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had specifically warned was not established as safe or effective, it was not an abuse of discretion to deny reimbursement. View "Mitchell v. United Parcel Service, et al." on Justia Law

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An apprentice electrician, who was unmarried and had no dependents, was working for a construction project subcontractor when she died in an accident. Her direct employer paid funeral benefits required by the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act; no other benefits were required under the Act. The employee’s estate brought a wrongful death action against the general contractor and the building owner; they moved to dismiss the action based on the Act’s exclusive liability provisions, which were expanded in 2004 to include contractors and project owners. The estate moved for summary judgment, arguing that the 2004 exclusive liability expansion violated due process because it left the estate without an effective remedy. The court rejected the estate’s argument and dismissed the wrongful death action, entering judgment against the estate. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s judgment. View "Burke v. Criterion General Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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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

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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

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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