Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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Plaintiff Matthew Ziniti sued defendant New England Central Railroad, Inc. after he was seriously injured in a train-car collision. Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s partial summary judgment ruling and the ensuing jury verdict for defendant, arguing the trial court erred by: (1) granting defendant summary judgment precluding him from presenting evidence that defendant’s failure to place a crossbuck on the right side of the road at the site of the railroad crossing, or to take steps to ensure that an “advance warning” sign was present, caused or contributed to the collision; (2) denying a request for the jurors to view the crossing where the accident occurred; (3) denying his motion for a directed verdict on the railroad’s negligence on account of its violation of a safety statute relating to maintenance of the railroad’s right of way; and (4) denying his request for an instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine. After reviewing the trial court record, the Vermont Supreme Court rejected each of these arguments and, accordingly, affirmed the judgment in favor of defendant. View "Ziniti v. New England Central Railroad, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jay Bernasconi appealed the grant of summary judgment to defendant City of Barre. Plaintiff fell into a hole and injured his knee while visiting family graves at Hope Cemetery, which the City owned. He contends that the City’s negligent maintenance of the Cemetery caused his injury. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded plaintiff could not establish that any breach of the City’s duty of care caused his injuries, and affirmed summary judgment against him. View "Bernasconi v. City of Barre: Hope Cemetery" on Justia Law

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During road-construction operations, a truck owned or operated by Eustis Cable Enterprises, LTD, which was participating in the construction activity, struck and killed a flagger for Green Mountain Flaggers. The truck hit the flagger when the driver began backing it up in the southbound breakdown lane on Route 7 in Middlebury, Vermont. In response to the accident, the Commissioner of Labor investigated and ultimately cited Eustis for two alleged violations of 29 C.F.R. 1926.601: a failure to ensure that the vehicle’s backup alarm was audible above the surrounding noise level; and a failure to assure the safety devices were in a safe condition at the beginning of each shift. The Commissioner assessed $11,340 in fines ($5670 for each violation). Eustis appealed the civil division’s affirmance of the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Act (VOSHA) review board’s determination that Eustis failed to meet VOSHA’s motor-vehicle requirements and the resulting assessment of a fine for the violations. The Vermont Supreme Court concluded the evidence and findings did not support the board’s conclusion that Eustis was on notice of the violation and accordingly reverse and strike the citation alleging a violation of 29 C.F.R. 1926.601(b)(14) and associated penalty. View "Commissioner of Labor v. Eustis Cable Enterprises, LTD" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs appealed a trial court’s order granting defendants’ motion for summary judgment on their negligence claims. Plaintiffs were Jordan Preavy’s mother, Tracy Stopford, in her individual capacity and as administrator of his estate, and his father, Sean Preavy. They alleged their son tcommitted suicide as a result of being assaulted by some of his teammates on the Milton High School football team, which, according to plaintiffs, the school negligently failed to prevent. On appeal, plaintiffs argued the court did not properly apply the summary judgment standard nor the appropriate duty of care and that it erred when it concluded that plaintiffs failed to prove that the assault was foreseeable and that it was the proximate cause of Jordan’s suicide. Further, plaintiffs argued the court improperly imposed a monetary sanction on their attorney after finding that he engaged in a prohibited ex parte communication with defendants’ expert witness. Finding no reversible error, the Vermont Supreme Court affirmed. View "Stopford v. Milton Town School District" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs Willis S. Sheldon, individually as the father of Dezirae Sheldon, and as administrator of the Estate of Dezirae Sheldon, appealed the grant of summary judgment to defendant Nicholas Ruggiero, an administrative reviewer with the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF). Plaintiffs argued that defendant negligently failed to report an allegation that Dezirae’s stepfather Dennis Duby abused Dezirae, eventually leading to Dezirae’s murder at Duby’s hands. Plaintiffs presented alternative theories for defendant’s liability under: (1) Vermont’s mandated-reporter statute, which they argued created a private right of action; (2) common-law negligence; or (3) negligent undertaking. After review, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that even if the mandated-reporter statute creates a private right of action, or alternatively, even if defendant had a common-law duty to report suspected abuse, plaintiffs’ negligent-undertaking claim failed because defendant acted reasonably and prudently in his role as a DCF administrative reviewer. In addition, the Court concluded that defendant never undertook DCF’s statutory obligation to investigate all potential sources of Dezirae’s injuries. View "Sheldon v. Ruggiero" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Ira Martel appealed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment on his personal injury claims in favor of his employer, defendant Connor Contracting, Inc., and two co-employees, defendants Jason Clark and Stephen Connor. This case was about two separate exceptions to the exclusivity rule of workers’ compensation, the first of which applied when an employee is injured other than by accident, and the second of which applied when a person or entity could be held personally liable for an employee’s injuries. In August 2013, plaintiff was part of a four-person crew employed by Connor Contracting to perform roof repair work at the Montpelier Health Center. Defendant Jason Clark was the worksite foreperson, and defendant Stephen Connor was the treasurer of Connor Contracting and one of the company owners. While working on the project, plaintiff and the other members of the roofing crew used a personal-fall-arrest system (PFAS), which was safety equipment provided by Connor Contracting and required by the company’s safety program rules, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA). Plaintiff was completing the soffit work when he fell from the edge of the roof, hit the ground below, and was injured. He was not wearing a PFAS at the time he fell. The parties disputed whether a complete PFAS system was still at the project site on that day and available for plaintiff’s use. Connor Contracting disputes the removal of the PFAS and states that defendant Clark left two harnesses and lanyards at the project site. The Vermont Supreme Court held plaintiff’s action against Connor Contracting was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of Vermont’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Furthermore, plaintiff’s action against the individual defendants is barred because the acts that plaintiff alleges give rise to liability fell within the scope of a nondelegable corporate duty and defendants, therefore, cannot be held personally liable for plaintiff’s injuries. View "Martel v. Connor Contracting, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2014, Michael Messier and Kay Bushman were involved in an auto accident. Both were the drivers of their respective vehicles and were then-alleged to be Vermont residents. In 2017, shortly before the statute of limitations was to expire, Messier filed suit against Bushman and her auto insurer, Travelers, for damages he claimed to have sustained in the accident. The claim against Bushman sounded in negligence, the claim against Travelers asserted breach of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act (CPA). The trial court granted a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by Bushman and a motion to dismiss filed by Travelers. Messier appeals both decisions. The Vermont Supreme Court determined the motion filed by Bushman was one that challenged the sufficiency of service of process: the trial court, without holding an evidentiary hearing, found that Messier did not send a copy of the return of service on the Commissioner to Bushman as required by 12 V.S.A. 892(a). The Supreme Court reversed as to Bushman's motion because the issues concerning what was included in the mailing and whether the affidavit contained sufficient specificity to comply with section 892(a) were contested and needed to be resolved through factual determination by the trial court. Regarding Messier's claim against Travelers, the Supreme Court found his claim was brought under the CPA, but references unfair claims settlement practices which were part of Vermont Insurance Trade Practices Acts (ITPA). The Court found Messier did not purchase anything from Travelers- his only connection was that Bushman was insured by Travelers. Thus, Messier was not a consumer with respect to Bushman's Travelers insurance policy, and therefore had to CPA claim against them. The case was remanded for further proceedings with respect to the claim against Bushman; dismissal of the claim against Travelers was affirmed. View "Messier v. Bushman" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Vermont Supreme Court in this case was whether a landlord and a social guest of a tenant may be held liable for injuries caused by the tenant’s dogs to a third person outside of the landlord’s property. The Supreme Court concluded plaintiffs failed to establish that either defendant owed a duty of care to the injured plaintiff in this case, and therefore affirmed. View "Gross v. Turner" on Justia Law

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Jason Lillie appeals the Employment Security Board’s denial of his claim for unemployment benefits. In July 2014, Lillie was an employee of Amerigas Propane, Inc. and suffered an injury while working. He reported the injury to his employer, which in turn reported it to its worker’s compensation insurer. He sought medical attention for his injury shortly after being hurt but was able to continue working for several weeks, most of it on modified or light duty. In October, Amerigas fired Lillie for an alleged safety violation. A few days later, Lillie’s doctor indicated he was medically unable to work. Lillie expressed concern that he was ineligible for unemployment benefits because he was not able to work but was told he must apply in order to receive economic benefits. Lillie then sought workers’ compensation temporary disability benefits, which were initially denied by the insurer. Without any income or compensation disability benefits for several weeks, Lillie sought economic assistance from the Vermont Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families. Lillie was told by Economic Services that in order to be eligible for economic assistance he would have to file for unemployment benefits, even if he felt he would not qualify for them. With his workers’ compensation claim still in dispute, and based upon the information he had received from Economic Services, Lillie filed a claim for unemployment benefits. The Unemployment Division found him to be monetarily eligible for unemployment benefits when he sought them in December 2014. While he had the necessary base period wages to make him monetarily eligible for benefits, Lillie was not able to work and available for work, as required by 21 V.S.A. 1343(a)(3), because he was medically unable to work. He was, therefore, denied unemployment compensation. "At a minimum, coordination of the important information between the Unemployment Division and Economic Services concerning monetary eligibility, the establishment of a benefit year, and the use of wages and the use of wages prior to disability in connection therewith in the case of a worker injured on the job may have avoided this quagmire. Following the advice given by Economic Services, which we do not doubt was provided in good faith to Lillie, resulted in the unintended consequence of his loss of unemployment benefits once he regained his ability to work in 2017." The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the denial of unemployment benefits; the Unemployment Division applied the law properly, and the Court was "not at liberty to rewrite the applicable statutes to obtain a different outcome." View "Lillie v. Department of Labor" on Justia Law

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Claimant Joanne Perrault appealed the Commissioner of Labor’s decision on summary judgment denying her workers’ compensation benefits. On appeal, claimant argued she was an employee of defendant Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) for the purposes of workers’ compensation and, therefore, was entitled to benefits. Claimant applied to be a driver in CCTA’s volunteer program in 2014. Once through the application process, a volunteer driver was governed by CCTA’s volunteer manual. This manual, in addition to explaining certain restrictions and requirements, also stated that the manual should not be understood to mean that any employment contract existed between CCTA and the volunteer driver. Drivers received money from CCTA based on the miles driven in a given period and calculated at the federal mileage rate. The CCTA manual referred to this monetary payment as reimbursement, and stated that CCTA would perform random checks to verify the accuracy of mileage submissions. This was the only monetary or other exchange between CCTA and drivers in the volunteer program. CCTA provided insurance on drivers’ vehicles on a secondary basis and encouraged drivers to carry more than the minimum required insurance and to name CCTA as an additional insured on their personal vehicle insurance policies. Drivers in the program were required to meet standards set by CCTA and were subject to certain restrictions, which were similar to the restrictions governing CCTA’s regular drivers. On December 1, 2015, claimant had an automobile accident. At the time of the accident, she was driving a CCTA rider to an appointment. Claimant sustained significant injuries in the accident, including a broken neck at the third and fourth vertebrae, a fractured spine, and broken ribs. She subsequently sought workers’ compensation benefits. The Vermont Supreme Court held that, because claimant did not receive wages, she could not be considered a statutory employee as that term was defined for the application of workers’ compensation. View "Perrault v. Chittenden County Transportation Authority" on Justia Law