Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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In 2011, Joshua Martinez was driving a pickup truck when he lost control and crashed into a cabin, injuring the cabin owner Charles Burnett, and causing damage, including a spill of heating fuel. Burnett asked Martinez's insurance company, Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO) to pay him to do the cleanup himself, but the insurance company refused because the cabin owner did not have the qualifications required by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Cleanup stalled for over a year while the effects of the spill on the property and the owner’s health allegedly worsened. Martinez and the truck’s owner (his father) Robert Martinez, settled with the Burnett for the maximum limits of the insurance policy, but Burnett sought additional damages from the insurance company for its failure to promptly clean up the property. Following summary judgment for the insurance company and a reversal and remand by the Alaska Supreme Court, the superior court held an evidentiary hearing to decide whether the insurance company had assumed a duty to the cabin owner independent of the duty it owed its insureds. The superior court found there was no such duty. Burnett and the insureds appeal. Burnett contended the superior court erred by finding no actionable duty, and that it deprived him of due process by failing to consider his arguments before entering proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and awarding attorney’s fees. The insureds argued the superior court erred by deciding that they were precluded from further participation in the litigation once they entered into a settlement and were voluntarily dismissed from the case. The Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not clearly err in its findings of fact about the existence of an independent duty and that it did not violate Burnett’s due process rights. The Court also concluded the insureds were no longer parties to the case at the time they sought to renew their participation in it, and their arguments that they were entitled to either joinder or intervention were waived for lack of briefing. View "Martinez v. Government Employees Insurance Company, et al." on Justia Law

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In late 2014 Andy James was working in Deadhorse for Northern Construction & Maintenance, LLC, a company owned by John Ellsworth and members of his family. Ellsworth also owned Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc. Alaska Frontier had some kind of business relationship with Nanuq, Inc. In late December Northern Construction sent James from his usual work assignment to work in some capacity in connection with an ice road being constructed and maintained for Caelus Energy Alaska, LLC. James was instructed to work at the direction of Scott Pleas. Despite dangerous blizzard conditions, Pleas directed James to accompany another worker, Johann Willrich, to check fuel levels on equipment idling outside; James objected due to the weather, but was threatened with the loss of his job if he did not follow the direction. James complied; he climbed a large grader to fuel it, but a wind gust blew him off, resulting in shoulder and spinal injuries. James filed personal injury lawsuits, which were consolidated, against the companies. The companies sought and obtained summary judgment rulings that they had statutory employer immunity from the injury claims under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act’s exclusive liability provision. James appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found that because numerous issues of material fact made it impossible to determine whether the companies were entitled to judgment as a matter of law that they were immune from liability under the Act, summary judgment was reversed, the judgment against James vacated, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "James v. Alaska Frontier Constructors, Inc." on Justia Law

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In April 2015 Tracy Sampson was at the Kotzebue Airport, en route from Anchorage to her home in Selawik. She was walking from the Alaska Airlines terminal to the Bering Air terminal when she slipped and fell on ice. Paramedics brought her to the hospital emergency room. Medical staff took X-rays and told Sampson that she had fractured her kneecap and needed to go to Anchorage for surgery. Medical staff at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage informed Sampson that half of her kneecap was fractured and half was shattered. They subsequently performed surgery. After surgery, her knee was put in an immobilizer and a cast. She traveled back to Selawik around a week later and was bedridden for about two months. Sampson filed suit against the airline; a jury found the airline liable and awarded Sampson "substantial" damages. Sampson appealed, arguing the special verdict form contradicted the jury instructions. Because the verdict form was not plainly erroneous, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Sampson v. Alaska Airlines, Inc." on Justia Law

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Virgil Adams, a self-described journeyman carpenter, worked sporadically from 2009 to 2011 at a house located on Snow Bear Drive in Anchorage. He suffered a “T12 burst fracture with incomplete spinal cord injury” when he fell from the house’s roof in 2011, and became permanently and totally disabled as a result of the fall. He filed a claim with the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, and, because the property owner for whom he worked had no workers’ compensation insurance, the Workers’ Compensation Guaranty Fund was joined to the workers’ compensation case. The Fund disputed whether the property owner for whom the carpenter worked was an “employer” as defined in the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act and contended the worker’s intoxication caused the accident. The Board decided the injury was compensable based on two findings: (1) the property owner was engaged in a real-estate-related “business or industry” and (2) the worker’s alleged intoxication did not proximately cause the accident. The Fund appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission; the Commission reversed because, in its view, the Board applied an incorrect legal test in determining whether the property owner was an employer and no evidence in the record could support a determination that the property owner was engaged in a “business or industry” at the time of the injury. The Commission decided the intoxication issue was not ripe for review. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision, finding the Board did not legally err and substantial evidence supported its employment-status decision. The matter was remanded to the Commission for consideration of the intoxication issue. View "Adams v. Alaska Workers Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund" on Justia Law

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Allison Leigh broke her ankle when she slipped and fell in her employer’s icy parking lot. Following surgery she had a complicated recovery. Her employer began to controvert benefits related to the ankle about nine months after the injury. Three years after the injury, her employer requested that she sign a release allowing it to access all of her mental health records for the preceding 19 years because of her pain complaints. Leigh asked for a protective order from the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board. The Board’s designee granted the protective order, and the employer appealed that decision to the Board. A Board panel reversed the designee’s decision. Leigh petitioned the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission for review, but the Commission declined. The Alaska granted Leigh's petition for review and found that the statute permitted an employer to access the mental health records of employees when it was relevant to the claim, even if the employee did not make a claim related to a mental health condition. This matter was remanded back to the Board for further proceedings to consider reasonable limits on the release at issue here. View "Leigh v. Alaska Children's Services" on Justia Law

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Office worker Sallyanne Butts (f/k/a Decastro) fell from her chair onto her hands and left knee. She initially suffered left knee symptoms and later developed right knee problems and lower back pain that she alleged arose from the fall. She argued the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board erred when it performed its presumption analysis and when it awarded compensation for her left knee and back for only a limited period of time following the accident. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded: the Board appropriately considered the knee injuries and the back injury as distinct injuries and applied the presumption analysis accordingly; that the Board properly relied on the conflicting medical evidence to make its own legal decision about which of Butts’s conditions were compensable; and that the Board was not required to award compensation for knee replacement surgeries performed five years after the accident. The Court therefore affirmed the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission’s decision affirming the Board. View "Butts v. Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development" on Justia Law

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In August 2015, Kiel Cavitt was working for D&D Services, repairing a motor home’s windshield, when he fell from a scaffold onto concrete and fractured his right elbow. He suffered what was known as a “terrible triad” fracture, which had three components: dislocation of the elbow (which can result in ligament injury), fracture of the radial head, and fracture of the ulnar coronoid process. Cavitt had surgery which included an implanted prosthesis for the radial head. The surgeon testified that "typical" complications following terrible triad fracture surgery include pain, decreased range of motion, infection and the "need for further surgery." Cavitt appeared to recover from the surgery, but several months later, he began to experience "shooting electrical pain" in his elbow. Doctors could not determine specifically what was causing the pain, and attempted to manage the pain with medication. Cavitt was unable to return to his former work as a glazier because of restrictions on his use of the arm, and he started a new job delivering pizza. Cavitt sought an order from the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board requiring his employer to pay for medical care for the ongoing elbow issues for the rest of his life. The Board ordered only that the employer “pay future medical costs in accordance with the [Alaska Workers’ Compensation] Act,” and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The Alaska Supreme Court construed the Commission’s decision as requiring the employer to provide periodic surveillance examinations until another cause displaces the work injury as the substantial cause of the need for this continuing treatment, and with that construction - consistent with the medical testimony - the Court affirmed. View "Cavitt v. D&D Services, LLC d/b/a Novus Auto Glass" on Justia Law

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Joseph Traugott suffered from with diabetes and a related foot condition, and developed an infection in his foot while working at a remote site. He required extensive medical treatment for his foot and did not work since developing the infection. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided the worker’s disability and need for medical treatment were compensable based on an expert opinion that work was the sole cause of the condition’s acceleration even if work was not the most significant cause of the worker’s overall condition. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission reversed, because in its' view, the Board had asked the expert misleading questions. The Commission then concluded, based on a different opinion by the same expert, that the worker had not provided sufficient evidence to support his claim. Traugott appealed, raising issues about the interpretation of the new causation standard adopted in the 2005 amendments to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) and its application to his case. After review, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision and remanded for reinstatement of the Board’s award. View "Traugott v ARCTEC Alaska" on Justia Law

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Gregory Weaver worked at remote sites for ARCTEC Alaska1 off and on for several years as a relief station mechanic. His job involved heavy labor, and he filed several reports of injury during the times he worked for ARCTEC. He reported in December 2010 that he had “pulled something in the lower spinal area” while adjusting tire chains on a dump truck. He filed another injury report related to his back in early 2012, after he experienced back pain while installing garage door panels. Weaver passed “fit for duty” physical examinations after both of these injuries. In 2013, however, he woke up one morning with back pain that made it hard for him to walk. He said his back pain “had been building up for several months,” but he could not identify a specific task related to the onset of pain. He said “the majority of the heavy lifting” he did that summer had been at Indian Mountain, but he described work at Barter Island as including significant shoveling and pushing wheelbarrows of rocks over difficult surfaces. He thought the camp bed provided inadequate back support. He asked to be flown out because of his back pain and has not worked since. Weaver began receiving About six months later his employer controverted all benefits based on a medical opinion that the work caused only workers’ compensation benefits after experiencing severe low back pain at a remote job site. About six months later his employer controverted all benefits based on a medical opinion that the work caused only a temporary aggravation of a preexisting condition. Weaver the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board to join a prior back injury claim against the same employer. Following a lengthy and complex administrative process, the Board denied the worker’s claim for additional benefits, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. Finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Board's and Commission's decisions. View "Weaver v. ASRC Federal Holding Co." on Justia Law

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The plaintiff in this case, M.M, was incapacitated, and in July 2014, a superior court appointed the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) as guardian. Plaintiff raised several issues in a complaint filed on his behalf by a next friend - issues regarding the caseloads of OPA workers, the lack of standards of practice for OPA workers, and OPA not visiting its wards quarterly as required by statute. Plaintiff requested class certification, a declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief. The superior court granted summary judgment against plaintiff on all issues except one, and the parties proceeded with discovery and briefing on the issue whether OPA had met its statutory requirement to visit plaintiff on a quarterly basis. After the parties stipulated to a set of facts, the superior court granted OPA’s motion for summary judgment on the remaining issue. OPA moved for attorney’s fees, which the court granted but reduced, and the court entered final judgment in favor of OPA. Plaintiff appealed, arguing the superior court improperly interpreted the statutes addressing to whom OPA may delegate duties, erred by awarding attorney’s fees, and erred by holding the plaintiff’s next friend personally liable for fees. Because the superior court properly interpreted the statutes at issue, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed its ruling that OPA could contract with service providers to help satisfy its statutory visitation duty. As to the attorney’s fees award, the Supreme Court concluded it was error to hold plaintiff’s next friend personally liable for fees. The matter was remanded for the superior court to reconsider whether to impose fees on plaintiff, given that the next friend was no longer personally liable. View "M.M. v. Alaska Dept. of Admin." on Justia Law