Justia Insurance Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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A hotel housekeeper injured her back while lifting a pile of linens. Her employer challenged her application for benefits based on an examining doctor’s opinion that she was medically stable and that the job injury was no longer the substantial cause of any disability or need for medical treatment. After a hearing, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board decided that the woman was medically stable as of the date of the doctor’s opinion and therefore not entitled to further disability payments or to benefits for permanent partial impairment. The Board also denied further medical care after the date of medical stability. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision, and the woman appealed. Because the Board’s selected date of medical stability was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the Alaska Supreme Court vacated the Commission’s decision and remanded the case to the Commission with instructions to remand the case to the Board for further proceedings. View "Tobar v. Remington Holdings LP" on Justia Law

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John Buckley started working for Labor Ready, Inc., a temporary employment service, in 2009. He was injured on assignment for a shipping company. At the time of injury he was performing a task prohibited by the contract between the temporary employment service and the shipping company. The injury resulted in loss of the worker’s hand and part of his arm. After getting workers’ compensation benefits from the temporary employment service, the worker brought a negligence action against the shipping company and one shipping company employee. The superior court decided on cross-motions for summary judgment that the exclusive liability provision of the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) barred the action. The Alaska Supreme Court reverse, finding material issues of fact precluded disposition by summary judgment. View "Buckley v. American Fast Freight, Inc." on Justia Law

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Petitioner Theodore Morrison had surgery on his right knee in 2004 after injuring it at work. He returned to work after the surgery and did not consult a doctor about that knee for almost ten years, until he again injured it in 2014 while working for a different employer. Following the 2014 injury he sought to have arthroscopic surgery as his doctor recommended. His 2014 employer disputed its liability for continued medical care, and the worker filed a written claim against the 2014 employer. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board joined the earlier employer to the claim and decided, after a hearing, that the 2014 work injury was the substantial cause of the worker’s current need for medical care, requiring the 2014 employer to pay the cost of treatment for the right knee. The 2014 employer appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, which decided the Board misapplied the new compensability standard and remanded the case to the Board for further proceedings. Morrison petitioned the Alaska Supreme Court for review of the Commission’s decision, and the Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s decision and reinstated the Board’s award. Based on the medical testimony, the Court found the Board identified two possible causes of Morrison’s need for medical treatment at the time of the hearing. It then considered the extent to which the two causes contributed to that need and decided the 2014 injury was the more important cause of the need for treatment then. "The legislature gave the Board discretion to assign a cause based on the evidence before it. The Board did here what the statute directs." View "Morrison v. Alaska Interstate Construction Inc." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied a Bryce Warnke-Green's request that his employer pay for a van modified to accommodate his work-related disability. On appeal, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission decided that a modifiable van was a compensable medical benefit. Warnke-Green moved for attorney’s fees. The Commission reduced the attorney’s hourly rate, deducted a few time entries, and awarded him less than half of what was requested. Warnke-Green asked the Commission to reconsider its award, but the Commission declined to do so because of its view that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) allowed it to reconsider only the final decision on the merits of an appeal. The Alaska Supreme Court granted Warnke-Green's petition for review, and held that the Commission had the necessarily incidental authority to reconsider its non-final decisions. The Court also reversed the Commission’s award of attorney’s fees and remanded for an award that was fully compensable and reasonable. View "Warnke-Green v. Pro-West Contractors, LLC" on Justia Law

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In 2002, Charles Herron, who was under the influence of alcohol and not old enough to legally possess or consume it, was involved in a single-vehicle accident in Bethel, Alaska A 15-year-old passenger in Herron’s vehicle, Angelina Trailov, was injured. Herron was insured by Allstate Insurance Company. Allstate filed a complaint for declaratory relief in the U.S. District Court in anticipation of Herron confessing judgment in the accident-related personal injury suit. Allstate requested a declaration that “its good faith attempt to settle Trailov and Mary Kenick's (Trailov's mother) claims satisfied its obligation to its insured, and a further declaration that Allstate [wa]s not obligated to pay any portion of the confessed judgment that exceed[ed] the limit of the bodily injury coverage afforded Herron under the [p]olicy.” Due to Herron’s April confession of judgment and assignment of claims, Allstate amended its federal complaint for declaratory relief. The only material addition was the statement that Herron had confessed judgment and assigned his rights against Allstate. The issue this case presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review centered on the preclusive effect of that declaratory judgment in favor of the insurance company against its insured in federal court in a subsequent state court proceeding. The superior court concluded that the declaratory judgment had no preclusive effect on a negligent adjustment action brought in state court by the insured’s assignees against the insurance company and its claims adjuster. The state action proceeded to an 11-day jury trial ending with a multi-million dollar verdict against the insurance company and its claims adjuster. The declaratory judgment determined that the insurance company and the adjuster acted reasonably when they offered policy limits to settle the underlying claim against the insured. Because the insurance company’s and adjustor’s reasonableness in adjusting the insurance claim was a necessary element of a negligent adjustment tort, the Supreme Court held that the assignees of the insured were precluded from relitigating this issue. The superior court therefore erred in denying the insurance company’s and claims adjuster’s motions for summary judgment. View "Allstate Insurance Company v. Kenick" on Justia Law

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A taxi driver injured in an accident while working filed a report with the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board. The nature of the relationship between the taxi company and the driver was disputed. The driver retained an attorney for a lawsuit against the other driver, and settled that claim with the other driver's insurance company without his taxi company's approval. Because the taxi company did not have workers' compensation insurance, the Alaska Workers' Compensation Benefits Guaranty Fund assumed responsibility for adjusting the workers' compensation claim. The Fund asked the Board to dismiss the taxi driver's claim because of the unapproved settlement. The Board dismissed the claim, and the Workers' Compensation Appeals Commission ultimately affirmed the Board's decision. The taxi driver appealed, but finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Commission's decision. View "Atkins v. Inlet Transportation & Taxi Service, Inc." on Justia Law

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One night in February 2014 Carlile Transportation Systems, Inc. driver Bart Neal was driving a tractor-trailer southbound on the Dalton Highway. Neal could not steer properly at speeds above 35 miles per hour and decided to stop to put chains on his tires, partially blocking both traffic lanes, and, by his account, activated his flashers. Neal did not deploy reflective triangles. Eggor Enterprises, Inc. driver Joe Seurer was hauling a load of fuel northbound. By his account, Seurer saw lights in the distance but could not determine what they were. Seurer slowed his tractor-trailer from 50 to 35 miles per hour. About three-quarters of a mile from Neal, Seurer again saw lights and thought they might be from a pipeline maintenance truck stopped off the side of the road. He did not see reflective triangles or flashers. The road had an S-curve between Seurer and Neal. Until Seurer rounded the final curve, he did not realize Neal’s rig was blocking the road. Seurer applied his brakes about 300 feet from Neal, avoiding a serious collision but causing Seurer’s trailer to fall onto the side of the highway. The trailer’s fuel load spilled alongside the road. Eggor Enterprises’s insurer, HDI-Gerling American Insurance Company (HDI), paid over $3.5 million in cleanup costs to remediate the spill. HDI-Gerling, as subrogee of its trucking company client, sued Carlile for negligence. After a trial the jury determined that Carlile company’s driver was not negligent and returned a defense verdict. The insurance company appealed some of the superior court’s trial rulings. Seeing no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s entry of final judgment. View "HDI-Gerling America Insurance Company v. Carlile Transportation Systems, Inc." on Justia Law

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Allstate Insurance Company denied underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage to Nathan Ball for an accident involving his own vehicle after determining he was not an insured person under his then-fiancée’s parents’ Allstate automobile insurance policy. Ball contended that his fiancée was a “policyholder” for purposes of her parents’ policy, a necessary predicate to his argument for UIM coverage under the policy. But the policy declarations page did not list “policyholders,” it listed only “named insureds” and “drivers.” The superior court granted summary judgment on grounds that the policy language was not ambiguous because “policyholder” referred only to the parents, the “named insureds,” that the fiancée as only a listed driver, had no objectively reasonable expectation that she was a policyholder, and, therefore, that Allstate did not have a duty to provide Ball UIM coverage. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed “policyholder” encompassed only the named insureds, not listed drivers, and therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision. View "Ball v. Allstate Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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While sitting on his motorcycle at a stop light, Chad Hahn was thrown backwards when Franklin Townsend’s car failed to stop in time and struck the motorcycle. During settlement negotiations in the suit that followed, Hahn sought payment under Townsend’s underinsured motorist(UIM) insurance policy. Hahn argued that he was an insured occupant of Townsend’s car because he landed on the car after the impact and that Townsend’s liability insurance would not cover the full extent of his damages, rendering Townsend underinsured. Townsend’s insurer, GEICO Choice Insurance Company (GEICO), sued for a declaratory judgment that no UIM coverage was available. Hahn answered, raising a number of affirmative defenses including that GEICO’s declaratory judgment action was not ripe and that the court therefore lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Hahn also filed a counterclaim for a declaratory judgment that UIM coverage was available to him, and asserted third-party claims against Townsend, seeking to join him as a necessary party and a real party in interest. The superior court concluded that it had subject matter jurisdiction, granted summary judgment and a declaratory judgment in GEICO’s favor, and dismissed the third-party claims against Townsend. Hahn appealed; finding no reversible error, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Hahn v. GEICO Choice Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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An insured sued her auto insurer and one of its adjusters, alleging that the insurer breached the insurance contract and committed tortious bad faith by withholding underinsured motorist benefits and that the adjuster negligently handled her claim for those benefits. The insurer then paid all available underinsured motorist benefits to the insured, including interest. The insured continued her tort claims, alleging additional financial and emotional harm from the delayed benefits payment. The insured proposed a jury instruction addressing the effect of the insurer’s belated payment, but the superior court rejected that instruction. After trial the jury determined that: (1) the insurer had acted in bad faith, but its conduct was not a substantial factor in causing the insured’s asserted harm; and (2) the adjuster had not been negligent. The superior court subsequently ordered the jury to award the insured nominal damages. The jury then awarded the insured $2 in nominal damages and later awarded $450,000 in punitive damages. The superior court awarded the insured prevailing party costs and attorney’s fees against the insurer. The court also awarded the adjuster prevailing party attorney’s fees against the insured. The court rejected the insured’s request that judgment against the insurer be entered nunc pro tunc to the date of the jury verdict so that post-judgment interest on the punitive damages award would start earlier. The insurer appealed the nominal and punitive damages awards and the prevailing party determination. The insured cross-appealed the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award, the jury’s failure to award compensatory damages, the court’s rejection of the insured’s proposed jury instruction, and the court’s refusal to enter judgment effective from the jury verdict date. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed in all respects save the adjuster’s attorney’s fees award: that was remanded for further proceedings. View "Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Gonzalez" on Justia Law