Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

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Keshia Porter appeals the district court’s dismissal of her complaint as time barred. Porter’s husband, Delandis Richardson, was killed in an auto accident in Campbell County, Wyoming, on November 25, 2014. Within two years, on November 21, 2016, Vance Countryman filed a “Petition/Action for the Appointment of Wrongful Death Representative” in the District Court of Campbell County, Wyoming. Countryman requested appointment as Richardson’s WDR under Wyo. Stat. Secs. 1-38-101 to 105. The state court judge expressed concern that appointing Countryman, who would be acting as an attorney in the wrongful death suit, could pose ethical problems. On April 27, 2017, Porter filed an “Amended Petition/Action for the Appointment of Wrongful Death Representative” asking the court to appoint her as Richardson’s WDR. It stated that “[t]his petition is ‘made in a separate action brought solely for appointing the wrongful death representative’ pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. 1-38-103(b).” The document was filed in the existing state court action. On July 10, 2017, the court appointed Porter the WDR for Richardson. Porter then filed this action against Ford Motor Company on August 7, 2017, as Richardson’s WDR. Ford moved to dismiss, arguing that Porter’s claims were barred by Wyoming’s two-year limitations period for wrongful death actions. The district court agreed and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Porter timely appealed. The Tenth Circuit determined that a WDR petition was filed by another putative representative within two years and Porter was appointed WDR in that state court action. She then filed the present suit within thirty days of her appointment. On these facts, the Court concluded Porter’s complaint was timely under Wyo. Stat. 1-38-103(b)(ii). Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Porter v. Ford Motor Company" on Justia Law

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Tony Kourianos worked as a coal miner for more than 27 years before filing a claim for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act (“BLBA”). His claim was reviewed through a three-tiered administrative process. Ultimately, the Benefits Review Board (“BRB”) found that he was entitled to benefits. The BRB also found that Kourianos’s last employer, Hidden Splendor Resources, Inc., was the “responsible operator” liable for paying those benefits. Hidden Splendor’s insurer, Rockwood Casualty Insurance Company, petitioned the Tent Circuit Court of Appeal for review of the BRB’s decision: (1) challenging the administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) decision prohibiting Hidden Splendor from withdrawing its responsible operator stipulation; and (2) contending the BRB incorrectly found that Kourianos was totally disabled and entitled to benefits. Finding no abuse of discretion in the BRB decision, the Tenth Circuit denied Rockwood's petition. View "Rockwood Casualty Insurance v. Director, OWCP" on Justia Law

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In 2008, James Nelson was seriously injured while riding his bicycle on United States Air Force Academy land. He and his wife, Elizabeth Varney, sued the Academy under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), seeking damages. The district court ruled in their favor and awarded them approximately $7 million in damages. In a previous appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed that decision, holding that the Colorado Recreational Use Statute (the “CRUS”) shielded the Academy from liability. But the Court remanded on the issue of whether an exception to the statute’s liability shield applied. On remand, the district court held that an exception did apply, and reinstated its prior judgment. The Academy appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Nelson v. United States" on Justia Law

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Dennis Woolman, former president of The Clemens Coal Company, challenged a district court’s determination that Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company didn’t breach a duty to him by failing to procure for Clemens Coal an insurance policy with a black-lung disease endorsement. Clemens Coal operated a surface coal mine until it filed for bankruptcy in 1997. Woolman served as Clemens Coal’s last president before it went bankrupt. Federal law required Clemens Coal to maintain worker’s compensation insurance with a special endorsement covering miners’ black-lung disease benefits. Woolman didn’t personally procure insurance for Clemens Coal but instead delegated that responsibility to an outside consultant. The policy the consultant ultimately purchased for the company did not contain a black-lung-claim endorsement, and it expressly excluded coverage for federal occupational disease claims, such as those arising under the Black Lung Benefits Act (the Act). In 2012, a former Clemens Coal employee, Clayton Spencer, filed a claim with the United States Department of Labor (DOL) against Clemens Coal for benefits under the Act. After some investigation, the DOL advised Woolman that Clemens Coal was uninsured for black-lung-benefits claims as of July 25, 1997 (the last date of Spencer’s employment) and that, without such coverage, Woolman, as Clemens Coal’s president, could be held personally liable. Woolman promptly tendered the claim to Liberty Mutual for a legal defense. Liberty Mutual responded with a reservation-of-rights letter, stating that it hadn’t yet determined coverage for Spencer’s claim but that it would provide a defense during its investigation. Then in a follow-up letter, Liberty Mutual clarified that it would defend Clemens Coal as a company (not Woolman personally) and advised Woolman to retain his own counsel. Liberty Mutual eventually concluded that the insurance policy didn’t cover the black-lung claim, and sued Clemens Coal and Woolman for a declaration to that effect. In his suit, Woolman also challenged the district court’s rejection of his argument that Liberty Mutual should have been estopped from denying black-lung-disease coverage, insisting that he relied on Liberty Mutual to provide such coverage. Having considered the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court didn’t err in declining Woolman’s extraordinary request to expand the coverages in the Liberty Mutual policy. “Liberty Mutual never represented it would procure the coverage that Woolman now seeks, and the policy itself clearly excludes such coverage. No other compelling consideration justifies rewriting the agreement— twenty years later—to Woolman’s liking.” View "Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance v. Woolman" on Justia Law

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Terry Schulenberg, a train engineer for BNSF Railway Company, was injured when the train he was riding “bottomed out.” Schulenberg filed suit against BNSF, alleging liability for negligence under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). BNSF filed motions to exclude Schulenberg’s expert witness and for summary judgment, both of which the district court granted. Schulenberg appealed, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the expert witness because there was no discernable methodology offered for his opinions. And the Court concluded the district court was correct in granting summary judgment to BNSF because Schulenberg failed to present a dispute of material fact on his sole theory of liability on appeal, negligence per se. View "Schulenberg v. BNSF Railway Company" on Justia Law

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George Straub, an employee of BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”), injured his back and neck when, in the course and scope of his duties, he attempted to adjust the engineer’s chair of Locomotive #6295. Straub brought suit, asserting BNSF was (among other things) strictly liable for his injuries under the provisions of the Federal Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”). BNSF moved to dismiss; the district court concluded Straub’s injuries did not implicate LIA. The district court ruled the adjustment mechanism of the engineer’s seat was not an “integral or essential part of a completed locomotive.” Instead, according to the district court, the seat adjustment mechanism was a non-essential comfort device. In reaching this conclusion, the district court relied on the Tenth Circuit’s decision in King v. Southern Pacific Transportation Co., 855 F.2d 1485 (10th Cir. 1988). Straub appealed, arguing the district court’s reliance on King was misplaced. The Tenth Circuit held that the allegations set out in Straub’s complaint (i.e., that the engineer’s chair failed when moved initially and stopped abruptly as Straub was attempting to adjust it) stated a violation of LIA: “Once BNSF installed an engineer’s chair with a seat adjustment mechanism, 49 U.S.C. 20701(1) mandated that BNSF maintain the chair so that the seat adjustment device be ‘in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury’ and 49 C.F.R. 229.7 mandated that BNSF maintain the chair so that the seat adjustment mechanism was ‘in proper condition and safe to operate in service . . . without unnecessary peril to life or limb.’” The Court reversed the district court’s grant of BNSF’s motion to dismiss Straub’s claim to the extent it depended on LIA-based strict liability, and remanded this matter for further proceedings. View "Straub v. BNSF" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Jacob McGehee and Steven Ray Heath appealed a district court’s grant of summary judgment to defendants Forest Oil Corp. and Lantern Drilling Co. Forest and Lantern leased a drilling device from Teledrift, plaintiffs’ employer, and returned the device after using it in drilling operations. Plaintiffs then proceeded to clean and disassemble it. McGehee discovered several small bolts had fallen into the device. While he attempted to remove them, the lithium battery inside the device exploded, injuring himself and Heath. They sued Forest and Lantern for negligently causing the explosion by allowing bolts to fall into the device. Following discovery, Forest and Lantern moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted, holding they did not owe the plaintiffs a duty of care under Oklahoma tort law. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "McGehee v. Southwest Electronic Energy" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Jeffrey Allen was injured in a car accident in May 2013. His automobile insurance policy included coverage for medical expenses arising from car accidents, but this coverage contained a one-year limitation period such that he could not obtain reimbursement for medical expenses that accrued a year or more after an accident. Allen sought reimbursement for medical expenses accruing more than a year after his accident, arguing this limitation period was invalid on two grounds: (1) a 2012 disclosure form that his insurer sent him stated that his policy covers reasonable medical expenses arising from a car accident, Colorado’s reasonable-expectations doctrine rendered the one-year limitations period unenforceable; and (2) Colorado’s MedPay statute, which required car insurance companies to offer at least $5,000 of coverage for medical expenses, prohibited placing a one-year time limit on this coverage. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer. After review, the Tenth Circuit rejected both of Allen’s arguments and affirmed the district court order. View "Allen v. USAA" on Justia Law

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In 2013, while the disputed insurance policy was in effect, several guests at the Siloam Springs Hotel allegedly sustained injuries due to carbon monoxide poisoning stemming from an indoor-swimming-pool heater that had recently been serviced. The hotel sought coverage under the policy, and the insurer denied coverage based on the exclusion for “qualities or characteristics of indoor air.” This case made it back to the Tenth Circuit following a remand in which the district court was directed to determine whether there was complete diversity of citizenship between the parties, which was an essential jurisdictional issue that needed to be decided before it could properly address the merits of this case. On remand, the district court received evidence on this question and determined that diversity jurisdiction was indeed proper. The district court also certified a policy question to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which held that the exclusion at issue in this case - however interpreted -should not be voided based on public policy concerns. Following the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s resolution of the certified question, the insurer asked the district court to administratively close the case, arguing that “no further activity in this case . . . remains necessary to render the [district c]ourt’s adjudication of the coverage issue which the case concerns a final judgment.” The hotel asked the court to reopen the case to either reconsider its previous order or to enter a final, appealable judgment against the hotel. The district court held that the case had already been administratively closed and it had no need to reopen the case, since “both its finding of diversity jurisdiction and the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s answer to the certified question did not alter in any way” the court’s summary judgment decision on the merits of the coverage dispute. The hotel appealed. The Tenth Circuit determined the hotel was entitled to coverage under the policy at issue, and reversed the district court's denial. The case was remanded for further proceedings on the question of damages. View "Siloam Springs Hotel v. Century Surety Company" on Justia Law

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F & H Coatings, LLC (“F&H”), a commercial and industrial painting contractor, contracted with Boardman L.L.C. (“Boardman”), a manufacturer of steel pressure vessels and tanks, to sandblast and paint a number of vessels at Boardman’s manufacturing facility in Wichita, Kansas. During the performance of this contract, a fatal accident at the Boardman facility took the life of Toney Losey, an employee of F & H: Losey and his F & H supervisor, Robert Patrick, were preparing a 12,000 pound vessel for sandblasting when the vessel slipped from its support racks and crushed Losey. F & H characterized this event as a “freakish, unforeseeable, and still-unexplained accident.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) learned of the accident the same day, and sent a Compliance Safety and Health Officer to inspect the scene. The OSHA officer also interviewed witnesses and employees of F & H and Boardman. Upon the officer’s recommendation, OSHA issued a citation to F & H for a violation of the General Duty Clause, 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(l), because F & H’s employee was “exposed to struck-by hazards in that the pressure vessel was not placed on a work rack which prevented unintentional movement.” F&H contested the citation. Approximately eight months after the hearing, the ALJ issued a written order, finding that the accident that killed Losey resulted from an obviously hazardous condition of which F & H was aware. F&H appealed OSHA’s final order, asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside a $7,000 penalty imposed. Finding that the ALJ’s findings were supported by substantial evidence, the Tenth Circuit affirmed OSHA’s final order and the penalty issued. View "F & H Coatings v. Acosta" on Justia Law