Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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A pilot, who was injured in an airplane crash in 1985, sought medical benefits for a 2016 spinal surgery and subsequent treatment, as well as for diabetes treatment related to his spinal treatment. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied his claim, concluding that the 1985 injury was not a substantial factor in the pilot’s spinal problems. The Board also excluded the testimony of the pilot’s biomechanics expert due to non-compliance with Board regulations. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision, finding substantial evidence in the record to support the Board’s decision and that the Board had not abused its discretion in its procedural rulings.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the Commission’s decision. The court found that substantial evidence supported the Board's decision that the 1985 injury was not a substantial factor in the pilot's spinal problems. The court also found that the Board did not abuse its discretion by excluding the testimony of the pilot's biomechanics expert due to non-compliance with Board regulations. The court further held that the Board did not have an obligation to secure the testimony of a particular witness, and that the pilot's failure to secure a witness's testimony did not create an obligation for the Board to do so. View "Jespersen v. Tri-City Air and Alaska Insurance Guaranty Company" on Justia Law

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A young woman died of heart failure while hospitalized. Her mother, acting on her own behalf and as personal representative of the woman’s estate, sued the hospital, several doctors, and the doctors’ employers for medical malpractice. In successive orders the superior court decided that all the witnesses proposed by the mother as medical experts failed to meet the statutory requirements for expert testimony on the relevant standards of care. The court also denied the mother’s motion to replace the rejected expert witnesses; granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the mother’s claim for damages for a lost chance of survival, deciding that such a claim was contrary to Alaska’s medical malpractice statutes; and found that the amended complaint sought to impermissibly allege a new claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the doctors. The mother appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that exclusion of the mother’s proposed expert witnesses rested on a misinterpretation of the statutes that governed standard-of-care testimony; this portion of the trial court's judgment was reversed for reconsideration within the proper statutory framework. The Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion by denying the mother’s tardy request to replace one of her expert witnesses, who had lost the necessary board certification years earlier. The Court also affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the loss of chance claim, concluding, as the superior court did, that whether to recognize such a claim was a policy choice for the legislature to make. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that under Alaska’s generous notice pleading rules, the mother adequately alleged a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the doctors, and it was not necessary for her to amend her complaint in order to pursue such a claim. The case was remanded for further proceedings. View "Doan v. Banner Health, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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A tractor-trailer truck rear-ended a stopped car at a construction site, injuring the driver of the car. The injured driver was a successful surgeon, who suffered permanent injuries that limited her ability to practice medicine. She sued the truck driver and his employer for damages, including medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost earnings, and lost future earning capacity. After a bench trial, the superior court awarded damages for all categories except lost future earning capacity. Even though the court found that the surgeon had proven her injuries permanently impaired her future earning capacity, the court concluded that the surgeon had failed to prove the amount of her future lost earning capacity with reasonable certainty. The court reconsidered the defendants’ motion to dismiss several categories of damages, which it had previously denied, and dismissed the claim for lost future earning capacity. The court then found neither party was a prevailing party and ordered each side to be responsible for its own fees and costs. The surgeon appealed, arguing the superior court erred by requiring her to prove the amount of her future lost earnings to a “reasonable certainty.” She also argued that the court erred by not finding she was the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded it was legal error to require proof of the amount of lost future earnings to a reasonable certainty and not to award at least nominal damages to the surgeon for the proven harm to her future earning capacity from her injuries. The Court therefore reversed the dismissal of the lost earning capacity claim and remanded for calculation of damages based on the appropriate standard of proof. As a result, the Court vacated the award of attorney’s fees pending the court’s determination on remand. View "Downing v. Shoreside Petroleum, Inc., et al." on Justia Law

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A child was severely injured while in his father’s care. The father did not immediately seek medical help and gave conflicting explanations of how his son’s injury occurred. An Alaska superior court found probable cause to believe that the child was in need of aid, limited the father’s contact with the child and mother, and awarded the mother custody. A few months later the father was arrested outside the family home, and evidence suggested that the mother had allowed contact between him and their son in violation of military and civil no-contact orders. The superior court adjudicated the boy as a child in need of aid based on the actions of both parents. The parents separately appealed the adjudication. But after the appeals were filed, the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) informed the superior court that the child could safely be returned to his parents’ care, and the superior court closed the case. On appeal the parents argue that their appeals were mooted by the superior court’s dismissal of OCS’s case and that the Alaska Supreme Court should decline to hear the appeals and vacate the adjudication order to avoid the potential for collateral consequences. In the alternative, they argued that if this case was heard on the merits the Supreme Court should find that the superior court erred in adjudicating their son as a child in need of aid. The Court concluded it should hear the appeals on the merits, and therefore did not vacate the adjudication order. On the merits, the Supreme Court affirmed the order. View "Reed S. v. Alaska Department of Health & Social Services" on Justia Law

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An elementary school nurse who unsuccessfully attempted to save the life of a choking child sought workers’ compensation benefits for mental health problems she attributed to the incident. She argued that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to exposure to the child’s bodily fluids and resulting risk of disease and to the mental stress of the incident. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied her claims, concluding that her exposure to bodily fluids was not a sufficient physical injury to trigger a presumption of compensability and that the mental stress of the incident was not sufficiently extraordinary or unusual to merit compensation. The Board was most persuaded by the opinion of the employer’s medical expert that the nurse’s mental health problems were the result of a pre-existing mental health condition and were not caused by the incident. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court found: (1) the Board failed to recognize the link between exposure to bodily fluids and mental distress over the risk of serious disease, which under Alaska precedent was enough to establish a presumption that the mental distress is compensable; and (2) the Board failed to consider the particular details of the child’s death and the nurse’s involvement when it concluded as a general matter that the stress of responding to a choking incident at school was not sufficiently extraordinary to merit compensation for mental injury. However, because the Board found in the alternative that the incident was not the cause of the nurse’s mental health problems, and because both the Commission and the Alaska Supreme Court had to respect the Board’s credibility determinations and the weight it gave conflicting evidence, the denial of benefits was affirmed. View "Patterson v. Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District" on Justia Law

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This case presented the questions of whether and how Alaska Statute 09.55.548(b) applied when the claimant’s losses were compensated by an employer’s self-funded health benefit plan governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that an ERISA plan did not fall within the statute’s “federal program” exception. Therefore AS 09.55.548(b) required a claimant’s damages award to be reduced by the amount of compensation received from an ERISA plan. But the Supreme Court also concluded that the distinction the statute draws between different types of medical malpractice claimants was not fairly and substantially related to the statute’s purpose of ensuring claimants do not receive a double recovery — an award of damages predicated on losses that were already compensated by a collateral source. "Because insurance contracts commonly require the insured to repay the insurer using the proceeds of any tort recovery, claimants with health insurance are scarcely more likely to receive a double recovery than other malpractice claimants. The statute therefore violates the equal protection guarantee of the Alaska Constitution." View "Knolmayer, et al. v. McCollum" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that a carpenter who admitted using alcohol and cocaine before his injury had a compensable disability because it determined the accident would have happened regardless of his drug and alcohol use. The Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund, which was responsible for payment if an employer defaults, appealed, arguing that the employee’s intoxication barred compensation. The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision because substantial evidence supported it. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. View "Alaska Workers' Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund v. Adams, et al." on Justia Law

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Attorney David Graham represented Sandra Rusch and Brenda Dockter in separate proceedings against the same employer before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. Rusch injured her back working for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) in Klawock. Dockter sustained a knee injury at work for SEARHC in Sitka. After litigation, the parties successfully settled most issues with the assistance of a Board mediator. The parties were unable to resolve the amount of attorney’s fees SEARHC would pay for Graham’s work, so that issue proceeded to hearings, which the Board heard jointly. The Board awarded far less in attorney’s fees than the claimants sought. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decisions, resolving most but not all issues in favor of the claimants, and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. The Supreme Court instructed the Board to consider the factors from the Alaska Rules of Professional Conduct to determine reasonable fees. After the Supreme Court awarded attorney’s fees to the claimants for their appeal to the Court, the claimants sought fees for their work in the first appeal to the Commission, asking the Commission to adopt the modified lodestar approach to awarding fees. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court was whether the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act authorized the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission to award enhanced attorney’s fees to successful claimants for their attorneys’ work in a Commission appeal. The Commission decided the Act did not. But because the Commission’s decision rested on an incorrect interpretation of the Act and because the Commission failed to consider the claimants’ evidence and arguments in favor of enhancement, the Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the Commission for further proceedings. View "Rusch v. Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium" on Justia Law

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The City and Borough of Sitka, Alaska allowed an independent nonprofit organization to host a public event at a city facility. The nonprofit organization arranged for a volunteer to hang decorations in the facility; a decoration fell, injuring an event participant. The injured participant sued the City, but not the nonprofit organization, for negligence. The City brought a third-party allocation of fault claim against the volunteer. The parties sought summary judgment, and the trial court concluded that, under federal law, the volunteer could not be held financially responsible for the accident and that the City could not be held vicariously liable for the volunteer’s actions. The remaining negligence issues were decided at a jury trial; the jury determined that the volunteer and the city had not been negligent and therefore were not liable for the accident. The event participant appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court judgment. View "Sulzbach v. City & Borough of Sitka, et al." on Justia Law

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In 2019 a woman sued her former husband’s medical provider, alleging that from 2003 to 2010 the provider negligently prescribed the husband opioid medications, leading to his addiction, damage to the couple’s business and marital estate, the couple’s divorce in 2011, and ultimately the husband's death in 2017. The superior court ruled the claims were barred by the statute of limitations and rejected the woman’s argument that the provider should have been estopped from relying on a limitations defense. Because the undisputed evidence shows that by 2010 the woman had knowledge of her alleged injuries, the provider’s alleged role in causing those injuries, and the provider’s alleged negligence, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that the claims accrued at that time and were no longer timely when filed in 2019. And because the record did not show that the woman’s failure to timely file her claims stemmed from reasonable reliance on fraudulent conduct by the provider, the Supreme Court concluded that equitable estoppel did not apply. View "Park v. Spayd" on Justia Law