Justia Injury Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
by
Cecil Bristow suffered from a chronic lung disease, COPD, and attributed it to coal-mine dust from years of working in coal mines. An administrative law judge and the Benefits Review Board agreed with Bristow and awarded him benefits. Bristow's most recent employer, Energy West Mining Company, petitioned the Tenth Circuit for judicial review of the Board's decision, and the Tenth Circuit denied the petition, finding the Board did not err in upholding the administrative law judge's award of benefits. View "Energy West v. Bristow" on Justia Law

by
Officer Denton Scherman of the Edmond, Oklahoma Police Department shot an unarmed assailant, Isaiah Lewis, four times. Lewis died as a result of his wounds. Plaintiffs, the representatives of Lewis’s estate, brought this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging Defendant Scherman used excessive force against the decedent in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Scherman appealed the district court’s decision denying his motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed, finding its jurisdiction was limited because at this intermediate stage of the litigation, and controlling precedent generally precluded the Court from reviewing a district court’s factual findings if those findings have (as they did here) at least minimal support in the record. In such case, “[t]hose facts explicitly found by the district court, combined with those that it likely assumed, . . . form the universe of facts upon which we base our legal review of whether [a] defendant[] [is] entitled to qualified immunity.” The Tenth Circuit's review was de novo; Defendant Scherman did not dispute the facts recited by the district court, when viewed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, sufficed to show a violation of the decedent’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. What Scherman did dispute was the district court’s holding that the law was clearly established at the time of the incident such “that every reasonable [officer] would have understood” Scherman’s actions, given the facts knowable to him, violated decedent’s constitutional right. The Tenth Circuit concluded Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of showing the law was clearly established such “that every reasonable [officer] would have understood” that the force Scherman used against Lewis was excessive under the facts presented at trial. The judgment of the district court denying Defendant Scherman qualified immunity is reversed and this case is remanded for entry of judgment in his favor. View "Lewis, et al. v. City of Edmond, et al." on Justia Law

by
Kelly Day appealed the district court’s dismissal of the diversity action she filed against SkyWest Airlines for personal injuries she allegedly sustained when a SkyWest flight attendant carelessly struck her with a beverage cart. The district court granted SkyWest’s motion to dismiss the action as preempted under the Airline Deregulation Act (“ADA”), which preempted state laws “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.” The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with sister circuits that personal-injury claims arising out of an airline employee’s failure to exercise due care were not “related to” a deregulated price, route, or service. Therefore, the Court reversed the district court’s dismissal of Day’s action and remanded for further proceedings. View "Day v. SkyWest Airlines" on Justia Law

by
In 1981, defendant-appellee Richard Roberts was a federal prosecutor preparing for a murder trial. Appellant Terry Mitchell, then a teenager, was a key trial witness for the prosecution. Thirty-five years later, Mitchell sued Roberts alleging he sexually assaulted her through the criminal trial proceedings. Roberts moved to dismiss the complaint with prejudice, contending Mitchells’ claims were time barred. Mitchell conceded the claims had expired under the original statute of limitations, but claimed Utah’s Revival Statute made them timely. At Mitchell’s request, the magistrate judge certified questions to the Utah Supreme Court concerning the validity of the Revival Statute. The Utah Supreme Court issued a detailed opinion concluding the Utah legislature was prohibited from retroactively reviving time-barred claims in a manner that deprived defendants like Roberts of a vested statute of limitations defense. Based on the Utah Supreme Court’s conclusion that the Revival Statute was unconstitutional, Roberts again moved to dismiss with prejudice. Mitchell sought voluntary dismissal without prejudice under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(2). According to Mitchell, the Utah Supreme Court had not foreclosed the possibility that the Utah Constitution would be amended to permit legislative revival of time-barred child sexual abuse claims, and on that basis, she proposed a curative condition that would allow her to sue Roberts if such an amendment came to pass. The magistrate judge rejected Mitchell’s argument and dismissed her complaint with prejudice. She appealed, but finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the magistrate judge’s decision. View "Mitchell v. Roberts" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff-Appellant Cindy Roe suffered serious injuries after her Jeep Grand Cherokee unexpectedly backed over her. After the accident, she filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the manufacturer of her vehicle, FCA US (“FCA”), alleging that the shifter assembly in her vehicle had been defectively designed in that it could be perched into a “false-park” position where the vehicle appears to be in park, but was actually in an unstable position that could slip into reverse. Roe further alleged this defect caused her injuries. FCA moved to exclude Roe’s experts as unreliable on the issue of causation, among other objections. FCA additionally moved for summary judgement because Roe could not create a material issue of fact on the essential element of causation without her experts’ testimony. The district court agreed with FCA, excluded the experts, and granted summary judgment for FCA. Notably, the district court found that the experts’ theory on causation was unreliable because they failed to demonstrate that the shifter could remain in false park for sufficient time for Roe to move behind the vehicle and then slip into reverse without manual assistance. Roe appealed, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in excluding the expert testimony. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Roe v. FCA US" on Justia Law

by
Scott Hockenberry filed a complaint against Michelle Kalas in Oklahoma state court alleging state-law claims of defamation, tortious interference, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and abuse of process. Hockenberry was a Captain in the United States Army and Kalas was an Army Reserve Captain. In 2016, Hockenberry and Kalas were employed as attorneys at Fort Sill near Lawton, Oklahoma. Beginning in May 2016, Hockenberry and Kalas became involved in a consensual sexual relationship. In August 2016, Kalas made statements accusing Hockenberry of sexual assault and other misconduct to work colleagues, an officer with the Lawton Police Department, and a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator at Fort Sill. The Army brought formal charges of sexual and physical assault against Hockenberry under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The charges were referred to a general court-martial.The United States certified under 28 U.S.C. § 2679 that Kalas was acting within the scope of her federal employment when she made such statements. It then removed the action to federal court and substituted the United States as the defendant, deeming Hockenberry’s claims to be brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”). Once in federal court, Hockenberry challenged the United States’ scope-of-employment (“SOE”) certification. The district court rejected that challenge, ruling that Hockenberry failed to demonstrate that Kalas had engaged in conduct beyond the scope of her federal employment. The court then granted the United States’ motion to dismiss Hockenberry’s action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based upon the United States’ sovereign immunity. Hockenberry appealed, arguing the the district court erred in its denial of his motion challenging the United States’ SOE certification. After review, the Tenth Circuit found the district court erred in concluding that an evidentiary hearing on Hockenberry’s motion was not necessary. The district court’s judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Hockenberry v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff-appellee James Nelson was seriously injured while riding his bicycle on a trail on Air Force Academy property in Colorado. He and his wife, Elizabeth Varney, sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). Nelson sought damages for his personal injuries; Varney sought damages for loss of consortium. After several years of litigation, the district court ruled the government was liable for Nelson’s accident and injuries. The court based its decision on the Colorado Recreational Use Statute (“CRUS”). The court awarded Nelson more than $6.9 million, and awarded Varney more than $400,000. In addition to the damages awards, the district court also ordered the government to pay plaintiffs' attorney’s fees. CRUS contained an attorney’s-fees-shifting provision, allowing prevailing plaintiffs to recover their fees against defendant landowners. Providing an exception to the United States’s sovereign immunity, the Equal Access to Justice Act (“EAJA”) provided that “[t]he United States shall be liable for such fees and expenses to the same extent that any other party would be liable under the common law or under the terms of any statute which specifically provides for such an award.” The district court concluded that the government had to pay for plaintiffs' fees. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether the district court erred in ordering the government to pay the attorney's fees after holding the CRUS qualified under the EAJA as “any statute which specifically provides for” an attorney’s fees award. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Nelson, et al. v. United States" on Justia Law

by
Ariza Barreras, T.B., and F.B. (“the children”) were siblings. In May 2017, the children were transferred to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department's (“CYFD”) custody. At the time, Barreras was four months old, T.B. was two years old, and F.B. was one year old. CYFD employees Michelle Hill and Lora Valdez placed the children with foster parents Vanessa Dominguez and Justin Romero without evaluating whether Barreras and T.B., who were exposed to drugs in utero, “should have been treated and cared for as ‘special needs’ children and placed with foster parents who had received . . . additional training.” Dominguez and Romero had no experience as full-time foster parents for multiple children under the age of three with special needs. Hill and Valdez allegedly made this full-time placement even though Dominguez and Romero were licensed only as respite care providers. This case arose from allegations of abuse of T.B. and F.B., and the death of Ariza. The specific issue was whether the "special relationship" doctrine exposed five CYFD employees from liability when they all asserted qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that the children’s representatives’ allegations stated a plausible claim that two of the CYFD employees—Leah Montano and Gwendolyn Griffin—violated the children’s substantive due process rights. However, the district court erred by concluding that the other three employees—Kim Chavez-Buie, Michelle Hill, and Lora Valdez—committed a constitutional violation. The district court also erred by finding that the clearly established prong of qualified immunity had been waived for purposes of this motion. The Court therefore reversed as to Chavez-Buie, Hill, and Valdez on the constitutional violation prong of qualified immunity because the complaint failed to allege liability under the special relationship doctrine. Chavez-Buie, Hill, and Valdez were therefore entitled to qualified immunity. The Court reversed as to Montano and Griffin on the clearly established prong of qualified immunity because, even though it agreed with the district court that the allegations state a claim under the special relationship doctrine, the Court found the district court incorrectly deemed the clearly established prong waived. The case was remanded for a determination whether Montano and Griffin violated clearly established law. View "Hunt, et al. v. Montano, et al." on Justia Law

by
In 2014, Tomas Beauford suffered a fatal epileptic seizure in his cell while in pretrial custody at the Mesa County Detention Facility (“MCDF”). The administrator of Beauford’s estate sued various Mesa County and medical defendants in federal district court in Colorado under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging they were deliberately indifferent to Beauford’s serious medical needs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to all defendants. The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment as to Deputy Dalrymple, finding that whether the deputy was aware that Beauford was not breathing was a material fact in genuine dispute: “We cannot imagine a more material fact in the context of the Estate’s deliberate indifference claim than whether Deputy Dalrymple knew of the risk that Mr. Beauford was not breathing. The district court failed to account for this dispute, which a reasonable jury could resolve in favor of the Estate.” The Court affirmed summary judgment in all other respects, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Estate of Tomas Beauford, et al. v. Correct Care Solutions, et al." on Justia Law

by
On June 13, 2014, Beaver County Correctional Facility (“BCCF”) officers responded to reports of a truck running into parked cars. The decedent, Troy Bradshaw, was arrested Bradshaw for driving under the influence and he was transported to Beaver Valley Hospital. A deputy completed the Initial Arrestee Assessment (IAA), which reflected that Bradshaw previously considered suicide; was not thinking about it currently; had a brother who committed or attempted suicide; and was intoxicated. Bradshaw stated that he would kill himself if placed in a cell. After the IAA, the officers placed Bradshaw on suicide watch. Bradshaw beat on the cell door for two to three hours. Officers did not place him in a safety smock or create a suicide watch log, in violation of BCCF’s suicide-prevention policy, but a corporal monitored Bradshaw by sitting in the booking area all night. By June 14, Bradshaw was no longer acting violently, and he was transferred from a suicide-watch cell two to cell three, pertinent here, a cell with bed linens. Just after noon on June 15, Bradshaw was found dead in his cell after he hanged himself with some of the provided bedding. Bradshaw’s mother, plaintiff Kathy George, sued on behalf of her son’s estate, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 that prison defendants violated Bradshaw’s Fourteenth Amendment rights and “Utah Code Article I, Section 7.” The district court granted summary judgment to all prison defendants because the law entitled them to qualified immunity, and no Beaver County policy violated Bradshaw’s constitutional rights. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that although Plaintiff proved that certain officers failed to follow Beaver County’s suicide-prevention policy, “failing to follow prison policy is not a constitutional violation in and of itself.” View "George v. Beaver County, et al." on Justia Law