Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Injury Law

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Jimma Pal Reat was driving in Denver when he called 911 to report that several men had thrown a bottle and broken the rear windshield of the car he was driving. Operator Juan Rodriguez took the call. Reat told Rodriguez that though the attack occurred at Tenth Avenue and Sheridan in Denver, he and his passengers fled to safety in nearby Wheat Ridge. For reasons that were unclear, Rodriguez told Reat that because the attack took place in Denver, he needed to return to Denver to receive help from the police. Reat was shot and killed after driving back to Denver, into the path of his armed assailants. His estate sued the 911 operator, alleging civil rights claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 and various state law claims. Rodriguez moved for summary judgment on all claims against him on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court granted summary judgment in his favor on all constitutional claims except for a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim based on a theory of state-created danger. Under that claim, Reat’s Estate contended Rodriguez used his governmental authority to subject him to the callous shooting that caused Reat’s death. After review, the Tenth Circuit concluded the law was not clearly established such that a reasonable 911 operator would have known his conduct violated Reat’s constitutional rights. The court therefore reversed and remanded for entry of summary judgment in favor of Rodriguez. View "Estate of Jimma Pal Reat v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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Robert Adair was a firefighter with the City of Muskogee, Oklahoma (the City) when he injured his back during a training exercise. As a result of his injury, Adair completed a functional-capacity evaluation that measured and limited his lifting capabilities. After two years on paid leave, Adair received a workers’ compensation award definitively stating that Adair’s lifting restrictions were permanent. The same month he received his award, Adair retired from the Muskogee Fire Department. Adair argued that his retirement was a constructive discharge: he claimed that the City forced him to choose between being fired and retiring, which, he contended, discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and retaliated against him for receiving a workers’ compensation award in violation of the Oklahoma Workers’ Compensation Act, Okla. The district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment. "Unfortunately, in analyzing Adair’s discrimination claims, neither the parties nor the district court recognized the changes that Congress made to the ADA in enacting the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA)." Notwithstanding this error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. "Even if the City regarded Adair as having an impairment, Adair cannot show that he was qualified to meet the physical demands required of firefighters or that the City could reasonably accommodate his lifting restrictions." View "Adair v. City of Muskogee" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Leonard Lopez appealed after a bench trial on his medical negligence claims. Lopez underwent lower back surgery at the Veterans Administration Medical Center of Denver, Colorado (VA Hospital), in order to alleviate longstanding sciatic pain. Immediately following surgery, however, Lopez began experiencing excruciating pain in his left foot. Lopez has since been diagnosed with neuropathic pain syndrome. Lopez filed suit against the United States pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act alleging, in pertinent part, that: (1) Dr. Samuel Waller was negligent in performing the surgery; and (2) that the hospital was negligent in credentialing and privileging Dr. Glenn Kindt, the supervising physician involved in the surgery. At the conclusion of the trial the district court found in favor of the government on both claims. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment in favor of the United States on Lopez’s claim of medical negligence involving Waller, but reversed the district court’s judgment on the negligent credentialing and privileging claim. The case was remanded with directions to dismiss that claim for lack of jurisdiction. View "Lopez v. United States" on Justia Law

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In the early morning of November 11, 2007, Sofia Roberts caused a motor-vehicle accident that killed five people (including herself) and severely injured two others. She was driving a Chrysler 300 that she had obtained from the Marc Heitz Auto Valley automobile dealership (Heitz) a few days earlier. The Chrysler had been delivered to Heitz by Bob Moore Auto Group (Moore) earlier that day. Her estate was sued by the estates of Brant Winton and Rebecca Burgess (two of the others killed in the accident) and two survivors, Daniel Cosar and Marcus Moore (collectively, the Victims). The suits were settled for $3,000,000 each for the survivors and the Winton estate and $5,000,000 for the Burgess estate. Allstate Insurance Company (Allstate), the insurer on Roberts’s personal automobile-liability policy, contributed its policy limit of $50,000. The judgment limited execution to other applicable insurance policies. Three insurance carriers (for the Heitz or Moore dealerships), Universal Underwriters Insurance Company (Universal), Phoenix Insurance Company (Phoenix), and National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, PA (National) (collectively, the Insurers), then sued the Victims at a federal district court in Oklahoma under diversity jurisdiction, seeking declaratory judgments that their policies did not cover Roberts for the accident. The district court granted summary judgment to the Insurers. The Victims appealed, arguing Heitz still owned the Chrysler at the time of the accident and that Universal is therefore responsible under the “garage” and “umbrella” coverages of its policy for Heitz. Alternatively, the Victims argued that Moore owned the vehicle at the time of the accident and that Phoenix and National were liable under their policies for Moore. After review, the Tenth Circuit found no reversible error and affirmed the district court’s judgments. View "Universal Underwriters Ins Co. v. Winton" on Justia Law

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Jerry Perea died in 2011 after an incident involving Officers David Baca and Andrew Jaramillo. Merlinda Perea called 911 and told the operator that her son, Perea, was on “very bad drugs” and that she was afraid of what he might do. Baca and Jaramillo were sent to perform a welfare check. The officers were informed that they were responding to a verbal fight and that no weapons were involved. They were also informed that Perea suffered from mental illness and may have been on drugs. The officers located Perea pedaling his bicycle. The officers used their patrol cars to force Perea to pedal into a parking lot. Jaramillo left his vehicle to pursue Perea on foot. After a brief chase, Jaramillo pushed Perea off his bicycle. The officers did not tell Perea why they were following him or why he was being seized, and they never asked Perea to halt or stop. After pushing Perea off his bicycle, Jaramillo reached for Perea’s hands in an attempt to detain him. Perea struggled and thrashed while holding a crucifix. After Perea began to struggle, Baca told Jaramillo to use his taser against Perea. The district court denied Baca and Jaramillo qualified immunity against a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, and they appealed. After reviewing the district court record in this matter, the Tenth Circuit held that the officers’ repeated tasering of Perea after he was subdued constituted excessive force, and that it was clearly established at the time of the taserings that such conduct was unconstitutional. The Court affirmed the denial of the officers request for qualified immunity. View "Perea v. Baca" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellee Amber Lompe was exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide (CO) from a malfunctioning furnace in her apartment at the Sunridge Apartments in Casper, Wyoming. Plaintiff brought a diversity action in the Federal District Court for the District of Wyoming against Sunridge Partners LLC (Sunridge) and Apartment Management Consultants, L.L.C. (AMC), the owner and the property manager. The jury found both Defendants liable for negligence and awarded plaintiff compensatory damages totaling $3,000,000 and punitive damages totaling $25,500,000, of which the jury apportioned $3,000,000 against Sunridge and $22,500,000 against AMC. Defendants challenged the jury’s award of punitive damages, arguing the district court erred in failing to grant their motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) as to punitive damages. Alternatively, they contended the district court’s jury instructions on punitive damages were erroneous and the amount of punitive damages awarded against each Defendant was excessive under common law and constitutional standards. After review, the Tenth Circuit held that the evidence was insufficient to submit the question of punitive damages to the jury as to Sunridge, and the amount of punitive damages awarded against AMC was grossly excessive and arbitrary in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court vacated the award of punitive damages against Sunridge and reduce the punitive damages awarded against AMC from $22,500,000 to $1,950,000. View "Lompe v. Sunridge Partners LLC" on Justia Law

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A jury found that Defendant-Appellant American Family Mutual Insurance Company (American Family) breached its insurance contract and unreasonably denied payment of underinsured motorist (UIM) benefits to Plaintiff-Appellee Patrick Adamscheck. On appeal, American Family challenged three district court rulings: (1) the district court’s decision denying American Family’s motion for partial summary judgment on the ground that workers’ compensation benefits could not be offset against any recovery at trial; (2) the district court’s pre-trial decision to exclude American Family’s biomechanics engineering expert; and (3) the district court’s post-verdict calculation of damages to include the jury’s award of $395,561 in UIM benefits, plus twice that amount for statutory damages on the unreasonable-denial-of-benefits claim. After review of the trial court record, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part, but vacated the verdict and remanded for additional proceedings. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court correctly determined that workers’ compensation benefits may not be offset against UIM coverage under Colorado law. But the district court failed to fulfill its gatekeeping obligation under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, and therefore erred in excluding American Family’s expert. Because the record was inadequate to allow the Court to perform the district court’s gatekeeping function in the first instance, and because it could not conclude this error was harmless, the Tenth Circuit vacated the verdict and remanded for a new trial. The Tenth Circuit did not reach American Family’s objection to the calculation of statutory damages, which was not first presented to the district court. View "Adamscheck v. American Family Mutual Ins." on Justia Law

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In early 2010, when Christopher Cain was driving the BNSF Railway Company pickup truck back, he rear-ended a produce truck stopped at a red light. Cain said that the brakes failed and he couldn't avoid hitting the other truck. Cain filled out, signed, and filed BNSF’s Employee Personal Injury/Occupational Illness Report (Report), identifying as his injuries a skinned knuckle and a bruised knee. Cain never sought medical treatment for those injuries. So that it could comply with its requirements under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (Act), BNSF required its injured employees to complete this report and to notify their supervisors of any treatment received for work-related injuries. During BNSF’s subsequent investigation of the accident, Cain claimed that he had been in shock when he filled out the Report and had no memory of doing so. Cain said that chest pains worsened after the accident. Cain eventually sought medical treatment, and was later diagnosed with a rib fracture and excess fluid surrounding his lungs. Cain called the supervisor to tell him that Cain needed the next two work days off to have excess fluid drained from Cain’s lungs. The supervisor asked Cain if this medical condition related to the accident and noted later that “Cain was adamant that this had nothing to do with his on duty automobile accident.” A few months later, Cain filed an updated Report with BNSF about his January accident. As part of his doing so,his supervisors who discouraged him from filing the updated Report, noting that he was told that filing the updated Report “wasn’t going to go well for [Cain].” BNSF ultimately suspended Cain for 30 days, and later put him on probation for three years. Six days after issuing its suspension, BNSF terminated Cain's employment. In November 2010, after Cain’s union unsuccessfully sought back wages under the collective-bargaining agreement, Cain filed a complaint under FRSA with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). BNSF Railway petitioned for review of the Administrative Review Board’s decisions: (1) affirming an Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) finding that BNSF violated the FRSA when it fired Cain; and (2) the ALJ’s imposing punitive damages for the violation. After review, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the ALJ’s and the Board’s holding that Cain met his prima facie case and that BNSF failed to counter this with clear and convincing evidence that it would have fired Cain had it known of his delayed reporting before he filed his updated Report. In view of the ALJ’s findings of fact and credibility, the Court concluded that substantial evidence supported the ALJ’s decision to award punitive damages. The Court reversed the actual award, however, and remanded for the Board to provide a reasoned explanation for the punitive damages it awarded, and then to evaluate that award under "State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.," (463 U.S. 29 (1983)). View "BNSF Railway Co. v. Administrative Review Bd." on Justia Law

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In 2012, O.K. Farms, Inc. hired J.B. Hunt Transportation, Inc. to deliver chickens to Roger Gentry, a poultry grower with a farm near Wister, Oklahoma. Hunt, in turn, hired truck driver Troy Ford to deliver the chickens. In 2012, friends and relatives of Gentry were present to help him receive the delivery, among them, Jimmy Hill. As Ford drove into the chicken house on a Moffett (a vehicle similar to a forklift), he hit Jimmy’s leg and injured his ankle. Jimmy’s ankle became infected, and he died. Michael Hill, Jimmy’s son and the special administrator of his estate, brought a wrongful death action in Oklahoma state court against Hunt, alleging it was vicariously liable for Ford’s negligent driving. Hunt then filed a notice of removal based on diversity of citizenship, and the case was removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. Hill subsequently amended his complaint, adding O.K. Farms as a defendant. A few days before trial, Hunt’s counsel discovered Ford was unwilling to appear at trial, despite having been subpoenaed. On the second day of trial, Hunt moved the court to compel Ford to appear, or alternatively, to admit his video deposition testimony. The district court denied Hunt’s motion. The jury returned a $3.332 million verdict against Hunt. Hunt moved for a new trial or, alternatively, remittitur under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) and (e), arguing: (1) the court’s decision not to compel Ford’s appearance and its exclusion of his deposition testimony prejudiced Hunt; and (2) the jury award was excessive and unsupported by the evidence. The district court denied Hunt’s motion. Hunt appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Hill v. J.B. Hunt Transport" on Justia Law

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Trent Lebahn sued Eloise Owens, a consultant for Lebahn’s employee pension plan, for negligently misrepresenting the amount of his monthly retirement benefits. The district court dismissed Lebahn’s negligent-misrepresentation claim, concluding it was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Lebahn then filed an untimely Rule 59 motion, arguing preemption did not apply because Owens was not a fiduciary of the pension plan. The district court construed the untimely motion as one under Rule 60(b) and denied relief, reasoning that Lebahn’s argument regarding Owens’s fiduciary status had been raised too late. Lebahn appealed. The Tenth Circuit concluded it lacked jurisdiction to consider Lebahn’s challenge to the district court’s underlying judgment, so its review was limited to the district court’s denial of relief under Rule 60(b). Upon review, the Court found Lebahn did not demonstrate the district court abused its discretion in denying relief under Rule 60(b), and therefore the district court’s judgment was affirmed. View "Lebahn v. Owens" on Justia Law