Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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A patient sued a hospital, arguing the hospital violated the Alaska Health Care Decisions Act (HCDA) when it temporarily assumed decision-making authority over his medical care while he was incapacitated and treated him without his consent or that of his parents, whom he had previously authorized to make medical decisions on his behalf if he were rendered incompetent or incapacitated. The hospital argued it was entitled to immunity under the HCDA because it held a good faith belief that the patient’s parents lacked authority to make medical decisions for him, based on conduct that convinced health care providers at the hospital that the parents were not acting in the patient’s best interest. The superior court agreed with the hospital and granted its summary judgment motion, concluding that the immunity provisions applied. The superior court concluded the hospital was entitled to immunity because its doctors had acted in good faith and in accordance with generally accepted medical standards. In a matter of first impression for the Alaska Supreme Court, it determined the superior court overlooked the requirement for specific good faith as to the authority or lack thereof of the patient’s surrogate or agent. The grant of summary judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Bohn v. Providence Health & Srvs - Washington" on Justia Law

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In March 2014, Evvie Punches rented a one-bedroom apartment in the Conifer Groves complex in Anchorage; she renewed the lease in April 2015. The complex was owned by McCarrey Glen Apartments, LLC and managed by Weidner Property Management, LCC. Punches complained to the property manager since moving in regarding air quality in the apartment, and mold around the toilet. These issues continued despite a number of attempts by Weidner’s maintenance staff to fix them. Punches nonetheless renewed her lease in April 2015. When the property manager tried to arrange an inspection, Punches refused to allow maintenance staff into her apartment because she would not be home. Punches moved out of her apartment on March 2016 after delivering Weidner a “Notice of Defects in Essential Services.” Her notice listed issues with the front door, mold on the ceiling, mold on the carpet, damage from a previous fire, water damage, and “insufficient windows” that permitted “free flowing air throughout” the apartment. Punches moved to Minneapolis some time after she left her Alaska apartment, and sought care in Minnesota for various skin infections and reported that she had been exposed to mold for two years. She continued to pursue a connection between mold exposure and her recurring skin infections and other ailments. In 2017, she sued her former landlord and the property management company, claiming the companies negligently failed to eradicate mold in her apartment, thereby breaching the habitability provisions of the lease and causing her to suffer personal injury and property damage. After considerable delay involving discovery disputes, the superior court granted summary judgment dismissing Punches' personal injury claim. The parties went to trial on the tenant’s property damage and contract claims after the superior court precluded the tenant from introducing evidence relating to her personal injury claim. The jury rejected Punches' claims, and judgment was entered in favor of the companies. Punches appealed, contending that the court erred by ruling against her in discovery disputes, by denying her a further extension of time to oppose summary judgment, and by limiting the evidence she could present at trial. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the court did not abuse its discretion when making the challenged rulings, and therefore affirmed the judgment against the tenant. View "Punches v. McCarrey Glenn Apartments LLC" on Justia Law

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A worker died at a construction site when a retaining wall collapsed. Neither the putative employer, who claimed the worker was an independent contractor, nor the property owner, who hired the putative employer, had workers’ compensation coverage. The worker’s mother, who also was the personal representative of the worker’s estate, filed both a workers’ compensation claim against the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund and a superior court wrongful death action against both the putative employer and the property owner. The Fund later caused the property owner, the putative employer, and the worker’s father to be joined as parties to the workers’ compensation claim before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board.All parties to the workers’ compensation proceeding, except the putative employer, entered into a settlement agreement; in the settlement the estate elected the wrongful death suit as its remedy, agreed to dismiss the workers’ compensation claim entirely to effectuate its remedy election, received a settlement payment from the property owner’s general liability insurer, and dismissed the wrongful death claim against the property owner. The agreement explicitly preserved the estate’s wrongful death claim against the putative employer. The Board approved the agreement, and the superior court dismissed the property owner from the wrongful death action based on a separate stipulation. The putative employer then sought dismissal of the wrongful death suit, contending that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision precluded the lawsuit because the settlement effectively paid workers’ compensation benefits to the estate. The superior court granted the putative employer summary judgment, relying on the Act to decide that the Board’s approval of the settlement transformed the settlement money into workers’ compensation benefits. Because the superior court misinterpreted the settlement agreement and the Act, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Seal v. Welty d/b/a North Country Services" on Justia Law