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

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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Plaintiff-appellant Nancy Marks was serving a prison term in Colorado when she obtained entry into a community corrections program operated by Intervention Community Corrections Services (Intervention). To stay in the program, plaintiff needed to remain employed. But while participating in the program, she aggravated a previous disability and Intervention deemed her unable to work. So Intervention terminated plaintiff from the program and returned her to prison. Plaintiff sued, blaming her regression on two Colorado agencies,: the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) and the Colorado Department of Criminal Justice (CDCJ). In the suit, plaintiff sought damages and prospective relief based on: (1) a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act; and (2) a denial of equal protection. The district court dismissed the claims for prospective relief and granted summary judgment to the CDOC and CDCJ on the remaining claims, holding: (1) the Rehabilitation Act did not apply because Intervention had not received federal funding; (2) neither the CDOC nor the CDCJ could incur liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Rehabilitation Act for Intervention’s decision to regress plaintiff; and (3) plaintiff did not show the regression decision lacked a rational basis. After review, the Tenth Circuit agreed that (1) claims for prospective relief were moot and (2) neither the CDOC nor CDCJ violated plaintiff's right to equal protection. However, the Court reversed on the award of summary judgment on claims involving the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, finding the trial court mistakenly concluded the Rehabilitation Act did not apply because Intervention had not received federal funding, and mistakenly focused on whether the CDOC and CDCJ could incur liability under the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act for a regression decision unilaterally made by Intervention, "This focus reflects a misunderstanding of Ms. Marks’s claim and the statutes." The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Marks v. Colorado Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Progressive Northwestern Insurance filed suit to obtain a declaratory judgment that it had not violated any duty to its insureds in the defense of a wrongful-death suit. The underlying suit had been brought in 2013 by Gabriel Gant against Justin Birk; his parents, Edward and Linda; and the Birks’ family company, Birk Oil. The suit alleged that Justin had negligently killed Kathyrn Gant (Gabriel’s wife) in a car accident; that his parents were liable because they had negligently entrusted the vehicle to him; and that Birk Oil was liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior because Justin was driving the vehicle incidental to his employment by the company. Gant’s attorneys estimated damages of many million dollars, which far exceeded defendants’ insurance coverage. Defendants had assets from which Gant could have collected additional money on a judgment against them, but his attorneys apparently thought that a better way to collect a large judgment would be if defendants had a claim against Progressive for not representing them properly and exposing them to a judgment far exceeding their insurance coverage. Accordingly, shortly before trial Gant entered into an agreement with the Birks in which Gant promised not to execute any judgment against the Birks, and in exchange the Birks assigned to Gant their rights to the policy limits under the Progressive and corporate insurance policies, and any claims the Birks had against Progressive for breach of contract, negligence, or bad faith. After a bench trial, Gant was awarded $6.7 million in damages. Progressive then brought this declaratory-judgment action and Gant counterclaimed, arguing that Progressive: (1) breached its duty to discover and disclose the corporate insurance policy; (2) was negligent in hiring attorney Kevin McMaster to defend the suit; and (3) was vicariously liable for McMaster’s conduct. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Progressive on its claim and the counterclaims. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Progressive Northwestern Ins v. Gant" on Justia Law

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Robert Rabe worked as a pipefitter in an Atchison Topeka & Sante Fe Railroad (“ATSF”) repair shop. In that capacity, he replaced pipe insulation on passenger cars manufactured by The Budd Company (“Budd”). Rabe died from malignant mesothelioma. Nancy Little, individually and as personal representative of Rabe’s estate, brought state common-law tort claims against Budd, claiming Rabe died from exposure to asbestos-containing insulation surrounding the pipes on Budd-manufactured railcars. A jury ruled in Little’s favor. On appeal, Budd contended Little’s state tort claims were preempted by the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”), under a theory that all passenger railcars were “appurtenances” to a complete locomotive. The Tenth Circuit determined that because Budd did not raise this issue before the district court, and because Budd did not seek plain-error review, this particular assertion of error was waived. Alternatively, Budd contended Little’s tort claims were preempted by the Safety Appliance Act (“SAA”. The Tenth Circuit determined that assertion was foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Co. v. Georgia, 234 U.S. 280 (1914). Therefore, finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment. View "Little v. Budd Company" on Justia Law

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Arthur Noreja appeals the denial of his claim for disability benefits. Noreja filed his disability claim in March 2012. In July 2013, following a hearing, an ALJ issued a detailed written order – exceeding 13 pages with single spacing – in which she denied Noreja’s claim. The ALJ found Noreja had several severe impairments, including “arthritis of the left upper extremity and right lower extremity,” “cognitive disorder,” and “headaches.” Nevertheless, the ALJ determined that these impairments (or a combination of the impairments) did not warrant relief. The ALJ found that Noreja had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to do “medium” work, subject to various limitations, and that there were “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy” which Noreja could perform. The Appeals Council disagreed with the ALJ’s assessment, and remanded with direction for further proceedings. Once more, however, the ALJ determined that Noreja did not have “an impairment or combination of impairments” that warranted relief, reiterated that Noreja had the RFC to do "medium" work, subject to various limitations, and that there were jobs in existence "in significant numbers" which Noreja could perform. The ALJ did not obtain a new consultative mental examination before issuing her May 2016 decision, but she procured additional evidence regarding Noreja’s impairments. On appeal of the second ALJ decision, Noreja alleged the ALJ failed to follow an instruction in the Appeals Council's remand order. The Tenth Circuit held: (1) it had jurisdiction to determine whether an alleged ALJ violation of an Appeals Council order warranted reversal; but (2) the Court's “usual” review standards remained in force, meaning that the alleged violation was material only if it showed the ALJ meaningfully failed to apply the correct legal standards, or the denial of benefits was unsupported by substantial evidence; and (3) applying those standards here, the ALJ’s denial of Noreja’s application had to be affirmed. View "Noreja v. Commissioner, SSA" on Justia Law

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RW Trucking pumped fracking water from frac tanks at oil-well sites and hauled it away for disposal. Jason Metz worked as a driver for RW Trucking. When his trailer reached capacity, Metz turned off the pump and disengaged the hose. According to Metz, he then left a ticket in the truck of another well-site worker, David Garza. Metz testified that as he began walking back to his truck’s cab from its passenger side, and about sixty feet from the frac tanks, he flicked his lighter to light a cigarette. This ignited fumes and caused a flash fire that injured Garza (as well as Metz and another nearby RW Trucking employee). In this appeal and cross-appeal, the issue presented for the Tenth Circuit's review was which of two insurers’ insurance policies covered bodily injuries. Carolina Casualty Insurance Company and Burlington Insurance Company had earlier issued policies to RW Trucking. By design, the two policies dovetailed each other’s coverage. Each insurer contended that the other was solely liable to indemnify the insureds, RW Trucking and Metz, for damages arising from Garza’s bodily injuries suffered in the fire. After Burlington and Carolina jointly settled Garza’s claims, with each reserving its rights against the other, Carolina filed this declaratory-judgment action, contending that it had no duty to defend or indemnify RW Trucking or Metz, and seeking reimbursement of its paid portion of Garza’s settlement. On cross motions for summary judgment, the district court ruled: (1) that Carolina owed a duty to defend but not a duty to indemnify; (2) Burlington owed a duty to indemnify (and so implicitly, also a duty to defend); (3) that Carolina paid its share of the settlement as a volunteer, disabling itself from recovering its portion of the settlement payment from Burlington; and (4) that Carolina owed Burlington for half the total defense costs. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court as to the duty-to-defend and voluntary-payment issues, and affirmed on the duty-to-indemnify issue. The Court remanded with the instruction that the district court vacate its judgment granting Burlington reimbursement of half its defense costs. View "Carolina Casualty Ins. Co. v. Burlington Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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In the early morning hours of March 10, 2012, as hundreds of people emptied out of bars and concert venues in Wichita’s Old Town neighborhood at closing time, two Wichita Police Officers fatally shot Marquez Smart. Smart’s estate and heirs sued the City of Wichita, along with Officers Lee Froese and Aaron Chaffee, alleging the officers used excessive force. Smart. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Officers Froese and Chaffee on the basis of qualified immunity, reasoning that although the jury could find that the officers had violated Smart’s right to be free from excessive force, the officers had not violated clearly established law under the facts presented. The district court also granted summary judgment in favor of the City. After review, the Tenth Circuit determined there was evidence from which the jury could conclude that the officers were mistaken in their belief that Smart was an active shooter. And there was also evidence from which the jury could conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, their mistake was not reasonable. The court affirmed summary judgment as to all defendants on the first two claims of violation of constitutional rights, and as to Officer Froese and the City with respect to the third claim. But the Court reversed judgment as to Officer Chaffee on Smart’s claim that Officer Chaffee fired the final shots after it would have been apparent to a reasonable officer that Smart was no longer a threat. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Smart v. City of Wichita" on Justia Law

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In an earlier appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wyoming’s anti-indemnity statute would not defeat possible insurance coverage to an additional insured. In this second appeal and cross-appeal, the issue presented for the Court's review centered on whether the district court correctly ruled that additional-insured coverage existed under the applicable insurance policies; whether the district court entered judgment for the additional insured in an amount greater than the policy limits; and whether the district court correctly ruled that the additional insured was not entitled to prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees. Ultra Resources, Inc. held a lease for a Wyoming well site. In January 2007, Ultra contracted with Upstream International, LLC under a Master Service Agreement to manage the well site. The Ultra-Upstream contract required Upstream to obtain insurance policies with a stated minimum amount of coverage for Ultra and Ultra’s contractors and subcontractors. To do so, Upstream obtained two policies from Lexington Insurance Company - a General Liability Policy (“General Policy”) and a Commercial Umbrella Policy (“Umbrella Policy”). Lexington issued and delivered the two policies in Texas. Ultra contracted with Precision Drilling (“Precision”) to operate a drilling rig at the well site. Precision maintained a separate insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London (“Lloyd’s”), covering Precision for primary and excess liability. Upstream employed Darrell Jent as a contract management of some Ultra well sites. Jent assumed that Precision employees had already attached and tightened all A-leg bolts on a rig platform. In fact, Precision employees had loosened the A-leg bolts (which attach the A-legs to the derrick) and had not properly secured these bolts. After supervising the pin removal, Jent had just left the rig floor and reached “the top step leading down from the rig floor” when the derrick fell because of the “defectively bolted ‘A- legs’ attaching the derrick to the rig floor.” Jent was seriously injured after being thrown from the steps, and sued Precision for negligence. Precision demanded that Ultra defend and indemnify it as required by the Ultra-Precision drilling contract. Ultra, in turn, demanded that Upstream defend Precision under the insurance policies required by the Ultra-Upstream Contract. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court ruled correctly on each issue presented, so it affirmed. View "Lexington Insurance Company v. Precision Drilling Company" on Justia Law

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Petitioner George Ezell was a conductor for BNSF Railway Company. In 2014, the trainmaster directed Ezell to detach twenty ballast-loaded railcars from a train about to enter the Enid, Oklahoma train yard. To detach, Ezell had to climb railcar ladders to see which cars were more than half full of ballast. Ezell safely performed this method for five or six railcars, but while inspecting the next railcar, his left hand slipped from the flange after he had let go of the ladder rung with his right hand. He was unable to resecure a grip with either hand and fell several feet to the ground, fracturing his right leg, right ankle, and left foot. He sued BNSF under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) for failing to provide him with a reasonably safe place to work. BNSF moved for summary judgment, arguing that its railcar complied with the governing safety regulations and that Ezell had offered no evidence of BNSF’s negligence. “Ezell’s proffering what he believes are safer alternatives does not show negligence.” The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined the evidence established that to do their jobs railroad conductors need to climb the ladders, and that this was a reasonably safe activity. For that reason, the Court agreed with the district court’s dismissal of this case. View "Ezell v. BNSF Railway Company" on Justia Law

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While driving a car insured by Arizona Automobile Insurance Company, Marlena Whicker rear-ended a taxi and injured its passenger, Georgiana Chavez. Chavez sued Whicker in Colorado state court and won a default judgment when neither Whicker nor Arizona entered a defense. Whicker, unable to satisfy the judgment from the lawsuit, assigned her rights against Arizona to Chavez, who then filed this diversity suit against Arizona in federal court for failure to defend Whicker in the underlying state court action. Her theory was that Arizona had a duty to defend Whicker under Colorado law because Arizona knew that she was a driver covered under its policy. The district court disagreed with Chavez and granted Arizona’s motion to dismiss. The Tenth Circuit determined that under Colorado law, Arizona was only required to defend Whicker if Chavez’s complaint plausibly alleged Whicker was insured under the Arizona policy. It therefore reached the same conclusion as the district court and, affirmed its dismissal of Chavez’s case. View "Chavez v. Arizona Automobile Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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Elizabeth Frost died in an accidental house fire. At the time, ADT provided security monitoring services to the premises. During the fire, ADT received several alerts through its monitoring system. Although ADT attempted to call Frost and the back-up number listed on her account, it did not get through. After several such attempts, ADT cleared the alerts without contacting emergency services. The administrator of Frost’s estate and her minor heir, M.F., sued ADT. The central theme of the complaint was that ADT’s failure to notify emergency services contradicted representations on its website that it would do so, and that failure wrongfully caused or contributed to Frost’s death. The district court dismissed the complaint, holding the one-year suit limitation provision in the contract between ADT and Frost barred the claims and that Claimants failed to state a claim with respect to certain counts. Because the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found the contract between Frost and ADT provided an enforceable suit-limitation provision that barred the claims at issue, it affirmed dismissal. View "Frost v. ADT" on Justia Law