Christiansen v. Harrison W. Constr. Corp.

Decision Date04 November 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20180569,20180569
Citation500 P.3d 825
Parties David CHRISTIANSEN as personal representative of The Estate of Kasey Christiansen, David Christiansen, Kaitlin Christiansen, and Jocalyn Christiansen as heirs of Kasey Christiansen, Appellants, v. HARRISON WESTERN CONSTRUCTION CORP., Appellee.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Judson D. Burton, Murray, for appellants

Brett N. Anderson, Scott R. Taylor, Salt Lake City, for appellee

Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.

Chief Justice Durrant, opinion of the Court:

Introduction

¶1 Kasey Christiansen was killed at work when the Caterpillar mini-excavator he was operating rolled down the mountainside in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Mr. Christiansen's Estate, father, and daughters ("the Christiansen parties") sued his employer, Harrison Western, for damages. But the district court dismissed their lawsuit based on a provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act that bars employees from suing their employers over work-related injuries. The Christiansen parties appeal this dismissal, arguing that a narrow exception to the Act, which allows employees to sue over injuries caused by an employer's intentional act, applies to Mr. Christiansen's fatal injuries because they were the result of Harrison Western's intentional act. Because the Christiansen parties have failed to sufficiently plead that Harrison Western acted intentionally, we affirm the district court's dismissal of their complaint.

Background1

¶2 In 2016, the Utah Department of Transportation ("UDOT") awarded Harrison Western a public contract to install a Blackjack Gazex avalanche control system near Alta Ski Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon. According to UDOT, the project "require[d] special procedures relating to safety" based on the "steep and mountainous terrain at elevations from 9300 to 9800" feet. Based on this steep terrain, UDOT believed that a "walking excavator[ ]," which is a "type of excavator with legs that hold to steep surfaces," was "the proper type of excavator for mountainous terrain."

¶3 Although Harrison Western "knew that a walking excavator was essential for the safe completion" of the project, and it had "extensive experience" in "high angle and alpine environments," including experience using "walking excavators," it rented a Caterpillar mini-excavator, rather than a walking excavator, to complete the UDOT project.

¶4 Harrison Western's superintendent of the project, Erik Sowell, directed Mr. Christiansen to operate the mini-excavator on the mountainside to "dig a trench line for ... gas lines" under the Gazex machine. On multiple occasions while performing this work, Mr. Christiansen "slid down the mountain" in the mini-excavator. Harrison Western was aware of these slide-offs, but took no mitigation measures to prevent future slide-offs or rollovers. And after one slide, Mr. Christiansen was "told ... to take the rest of the day off."

¶5 On October 12, 2016, Mr. Christiansen was operating the mini-excavator "on an approximate 40-degree slope" when it rolled down the mountain. He "was ejected and sustained significant head injuries and evisceration of his abdomen." He died as a result of his injuries.

¶6 The Christiansen parties brought claims against Harrison Western for negligence, known or expected injury, and vicarious liability. Harrison Western moved to dismiss, arguing that the Workers’ Compensation Act's exclusive remedy provision—which prevents most tort suits against employers—barred the Christiansen parties’ claims.

¶7 In response, the Christiansen parties moved for leave to amend and submitted to the district court a proposed Second Amended Complaint in which they alleged that Harrison Western intentionally injured Mr. Christiansen. In support of this allegation, the Christiansen parties pointed to the following facts: (1) Harrison Western had experience with similar projects on mountainous terrain; (2) it was aware that a walking excavator was necessary based on UDOT's bid summary; and (3) it failed to take additional safety precautions after the excavator slid on prior occasions. The Christiansen parties argued that these facts were sufficient to bring Harrison Western's actions within the Act's intentional-injury exception.

¶8 After considering the motion to dismiss and the Christiansen parties’ proposed Second Amended Complaint, the district court dismissed their claims against Harrison Western, concluding that the Christiansen parties had failed to allege that Harrison Western had acted intentionally and that the proposed changes to their complaint did not change this.

¶9 We granted the Christiansen partiespetition for permission to appeal this interlocutory order.2 We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).

Standard of Review

¶10 "A rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss admits the facts alleged in the complaint but challenges the plaintiff's right to relief based on those facts."3 The grant or denial of a rule 12(b)(6) motion is a question of law that we review for correctness, giving no deference to the district court's determination.4 When a motion to amend a pleading is denied because the amendment would be futile, we review for correctness, giving no deference to the district court's determination.5

Analysis

¶11 In dismissing the Christiansen parties’ complaint and denying their request to amend, the district court concluded that their complaint failed to allege any set of facts supporting their claim that Mr. Christiansen's fatal injuries were the result of an intentional act, and that the additional facts in their proposed Second Amended Complaint did not cure this defect. Even when we view the alleged facts in the light most favorable to the Christiansen parties and "indulge all reasonable inferences in [their] favor," we conclude that the facts and inferences are insufficient to support a claim that Harrison Western intended Mr. Christiansen's injury.6 Accordingly, the Workers’ Compensation Act's exclusive remedy provision bars the Christiansen parties’ claims. As a result, we affirm the district court's dismissal of their complaint.

¶12 In so doing, we consider the additional facts the Christiansen parties presented in their proposed Second Amended Complaint. Because we agree with the district court that these additional facts do not cure the defect in the Christiansen parties’ complaint, we conclude that their proposed amendment was futile. Accordingly, we also affirm the district court's denial of the Christiansen partiesrequest to amend.

I. The Christiansen Parties Fail to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted Because We Cannot Reasonably Infer Harrison Western Believed Mr. Christiansen's Fatal Injuries Were Virtually Certain to Occur

¶13 The Christiansen parties argue that the district court erred in applying the Workers’ Compensation Act's exclusive remedy provision to dismiss their complaint. Under the Act, employees are barred from suing their employers for injuries stemming from workplace accidents—except where the employer intended the harm. This exception is called the intentional-injury exception. A party's claim can fall within the intentional-injury exception where the party pleads facts leading to a reasonable inference7 that the employer was "virtually certain" that the employee's injury would occur.8 The Christiansen parties assert they pled sufficient surrounding circumstances for us to reasonably infer that Harrison Western believed Mr. Christiansen's injuries were virtually certain to occur. We disagree. Because the Christiansen parties only allege facts that, at most, would support a conclusion that Harrison Western acted with willful negligence, not intentionally, they fail to allege sufficient facts to bring their claims within the intentional-injury exception of the Act. As a result, we affirm dismissal.

¶14 In determining whether the Christiansen parties’ complaint contains sufficient facts to fall within the Act's intentional-injury exception, we must first consider the purpose and language of the Act.9 This is because the language of the Act, and our case law interpreting that language, sheds light on the narrow nature of the exception's scope.

¶15 The Workers’ Compensation Act is a comprehensive administrative scheme that provides the exclusive remedy for accidental workplace injuries.10 Its "primary objective" is to "remove industrial negligence, in all its forms, from the concept of the law of tort."11 To accomplish this objective, employers are relieved under the Act's exclusive remedy provision of civil liability for an employee's workplace injuries:

The right to recover compensation pursuant to this chapter for injuries sustained by an employee, whether resulting in death or not, is the exclusive remedy against the employer ... and the liabilities of the employer imposed by this chapter is in place of any and all other civil liability whatsoever, at common law or otherwise, to the employee ... on account of any accident or injury or death, in any way contracted, sustained, aggravated, or incurred by the employee in the course of or because of or arising out of the employee's employment, and an action at law may not be maintained against an employer ... based upon any accident, injury, or death of an employee.12

In exchange for their ability to sue employers for civil damages, injured employees receive a "simple, adequate, and speedy" remedy without the burden of showing the employer's fault.13 In other words, in exchange for receiving a no-fault recovery under the workers’ compensation system, employees may not sue their employers for on-the-job injuries.

¶16 But the Act does not protect employers from liability for injuries resulting from the employer's intentional act.14 In Bryan v. Utah International , we held that the Act did not prohibit the employee's claim for damages, because a...

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