Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sullivan v. Scoular Grain Company of Utah case brief

Sullivan v. Scoular Grain Company of Utah case summary
853 P.2d 877 (Utah 1993)
Tort Law

PROCEDURAL HISTORY: Plaintiff employee was injured on the job and filed suit against defendants, employer, railroad, manufacturer, and others, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. Several of the defendants were dismissed from the lawsuit prior to trial. The manufacturer filed a motion to have the jury apportion and compare the fault of all originally named defendants, whether dismissed or present at trial, and the question was certified for review.

FACTS:

-The employee claimed that only the fault of parties that were defendants at trial could be compared in the apportionment process.
-In October 1986, plaintiff Kenneth Sullivan lost his left arm and left leg in an accident on the railroad tracks at the Freeport Center in Clearfield, Utah.
-At the time of his injury, Sullivan was assigned to unload grain from rail cars into warehouses. He was employed by Scoular Grain Company, Freeport Center Associates, and Scoular Grain Company of Utah ("the Scoular parties").
-Sullivan filed this action against the Scoular parties, Union Pacific Railroad Company,  Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, Utah Power & Light Company, Trackmobile, Inc., and G.W. Van Keppel Company.
-In 1989, the federal district court found the Scoular parties immune from plaintiff's claim under the exclusive remedy provision of Utah's Workers' Compensation Law and dismissed them from the action. That court also found that defendant Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad had no legal duty to Sullivan and dismissed it from the lawsuit. The remaining defendants in the case are Utah Power & Light, Trackmobile, G.W. Van Keppel, Union Pacific Railroad, and Oregon Short Line Railroad. 
-A motion to dismiss Utah Power & Light for lack of jurisdiction is pending at this time.

HOLDING:
-The court held that if the employer was not included in the apportionment the remaining defendants were potentially liable to the employee for an amount in excess of their proportion of fault.

RULES:
-The purpose and intent of the Utah Liability Reform Act require that a jury account for the relative proportion of fault of a plaintiff's employer that may have caused or contributed to an accident, even though the employer is immune from suit.
-Apportionment of fault does not of itself subject an employer to civil liability.
-The apportionment process merely ensures that no defendant is held liable to any claimant for an amount of damages in excess of the percentage of fault attributable to that defendant.

ANALYSIS:
-The exclusion of the employer from the apportionment process directly conflicted with the language of the Utah Liability Reform Act, which required that no defendant be held liable for damages in excess of its proportion of fault.
-The Workers' Compensation Act exclusive remedy did not bar the employer from the apportionment process because apportionment was not an action at law and would not impose any civil liability on the employer.
-It was not procedurally unfair for a jury to apportion the fault of the nonparty employer because it was to be given notice and an opportunity to appear under the Utah Liability Reform Act.
-The railroad was dismissed due to a determination of lack of fault as a matter of law.
-The railroad's exclusion from apportionment would not subject the remaining defendants to liability for damages in excess of their proportionate fault.

CONCLUSION: The jury could apportion the fault of the employers notwithstanding their immunity under the workers' compensation law, but could not apportion the fault of a party that was dismissed from the lawsuit pursuant to adjudication on the merits of the liability issue.

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