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

Articles Posted in Personal Injury
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Ricardo Ortiz died in 2016 while in the custody of the Sante Fe Adult Detention Facility (ADF). Ortiz’s personal representatives sued multiple individual ADF affiliates, alleging state claims under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act and violations of his Fourteenth Amendment right to medical treatment under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The defendants moved to dismiss the first amended complaint, and the plaintiffs moved to amend their complaint to include a claim for municipal liability that was not in any prior complaint. In an order addressing both motions, the district court dismissed the section 1983 claims, denied the plaintiffs leave to amend to include that municipal liability claim, and remanded the state-law claims. On appeal, the plaintiffs-appellants argued the district court erred in dismissing the section 1983 claims against individual prison employees and in denying leave to amend. The Tenth Circuit agreed that plaintiffs-appellants plausibly alleged Officer Chavez violated Ortiz’s clearly established constitutional right to medical care for acute symptoms related to his withdrawal from heroin. But the Court could not conclude they plausibly alleged the other individual defendants violated Ortiz’s clearly established constitutional right to medical care under these circumstances. Therefore, the Court vacated the district court’s dismissal with regard to Officer Chavez but affirmed with regard to the other individual defendants. Separately, the Court concluded the district court should not have denied the plaintiff leave to amend for reasons of futility: the district court determined that the plaintiff could not state a claim for municipal liability without first properly stating a claim against an individual, but Tenth Circuit precedent allowed municipal liability even where no individual liability existed. Accordingly, the Court vacated the district court's denial of leave to amend. View "Quintana v. Santa Fe County Board of Comm." on Justia Law

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Jane Doe appealed the dismissal of her Title IX claim against School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (the District or DPS) for failure to state a claim. According to the complaint, a group of students began sexually harassing Ms. Doe after she was sexually assaulted by another student in March of her freshman year at East High School (EHS). She alleged that despite her numerous reports of the harassment to school personnel, as well as reports from teachers and a counselor, the school administration never investigated her complaints and little if anything was done to prevent the harassment from continuing. She stopped attending regularly scheduled classes about 14 months after the assault, and she transferred to a different school after completing her sophomore year. The Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded, finding Ms. Doe's complaint contained sufficient allegations to support an inference of deliberate indifference. View "Doe v. School District Number 1" on Justia Law

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Shortly before 3:00 a.m. on June 12, 2016, Sarah Ball was killed when the car in which she was a passenger drove off United States Forest Service Road 456.1A and over an earthen mound before falling into an abandoned mine shaft about 20 feet off the road. Plaintiffs, her parents and her estate filed suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), raising several causes of action alleging negligence by the United States Forest Service. The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, ruling that the government was immune from liability under the discretionary-function exception to the FTCA. Plaintiffs appealed. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court. View "Ball v. United States" on Justia Law

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Denver Police Sergeant Justin Dodge fatally shot Joseph Valverde after he saw Valverde pull out a gun as a SWAT team arrived to arrest him after an undercover drug transaction. Plaintiff Isabel Padilla, as personal representative of Valverde’s estate, sued Dodge under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming Dodge used excessive force in violation of Valverde's Fourth Amendment rights. Dodge moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds, but the district court denied the motion. The district court held: (1) a reasonable jury could find that Valverde had discarded the gun and was in the process of surrendering before Dodge shot him; and (2) the use of deadly force in that situation would violate clearly established law. Dodge appealed. After review, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court. "Dodge is entitled to qualified immunity because he had only a split second to react when Valverde suddenly drew a gun. He did not violate the Fourth Amendment by deciding to shoot without waiting to see whether Valverde was merely taking the gun from his pocket to toss away rather than to shoot an officer. And to the extent that Plaintiff is arguing that Dodge should be liable because he recklessly created the situation that led to the apparent peril, Dodge is entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate clearly established law." View "Estate of Joseph Valverde v. Dodge" on Justia Law

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An employee of a federally supported health center failed to properly administer a drug to Alexis Stokes while she gave birth to Baby Stokes. As a result, Baby Stokes suffered from “cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia,” along with other disabilities, and his life expectancy was 22 years. The district court awarded damages to Baby Boy D.S. (Baby Stokes) and his parents, Alexis Stokes and Taylor Stokes, (collectively, the Stokes) in this Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) action. The government appealed, arguing that the district court erred in structuring damage payments. The Stokes cross appealed, arguing that the district court erred both by miscalculating the present value of a portion of the award and by awarding too little in noneconomic damages. After review, the Tenth Circuit: (1) vacated and remanded the portion of the district court’s order structuring a trust with respect to Baby Stokes’s future-care award, with instructions to fully approximate section 9.3 of the FTCA; (2) vacated and remanded the portion of the district court’s order calculating the present value of Baby Stokes’s future-care award, with instructions to apply Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. v. Pfeifer, 462 U.S. 523 (1983); and (3) affirmed the portion of the district court’s order regarding noneconomic damages. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Stokes v. United States" on Justia Law

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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