Craft v. Graebel-Oklahoma Movers, Inc., 102,352.

Citation178 P.3d 170,2007 OK 79
Decision Date16 October 2007
Docket NumberNo. 102,352.,102,352.
PartiesDianna CRAFT, Plaintiff/Appellant, and Compsource of Oklahoma, Intervenor, v. GRAEBEL-OKLAHOMA MOVERS, INC., and Central City Mobile Services, Inc., Defendants/Appellees.
CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
178 P.3d 170
2007 OK 79
Dianna CRAFT, Plaintiff/Appellant, and
Compsource of Oklahoma, Intervenor,
v.
GRAEBEL-OKLAHOMA MOVERS, INC., and Central City Mobile Services, Inc., Defendants/Appellees.
No. 102,352.
Supreme Court of Oklahoma.
October 16, 2007.

[178 P.3d 171]

Certiorari to Court of Civil Appeals Division 3.

¶ 0 Plaintiff was injured in a work-related motor vehicle accident. She filed this action against her principal employer and the company that inspected the van in which she was injured. The District Court of Tulsa County, Honorable David L. Peterson, granted summary judgment and the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed. On certiorari, we conclude that summary judgment was in error. While the safety provisions of the Federal Motor Carrier Act, 49 U.S.C. §§ 31101-31162, do not preempt the exclusive remedy provision of Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Act, Okla. Stat. tit. 85, §§ 1-211 (2001 & Supp.

[178 P.3d 172]

2006), Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to withstand summary judgment on her tort claim for damages against Graebel-Oklahoma Movers, Inc. Plaintiff also presented sufficient evidence to withstand summary judgment on the nature of the duty owed by the inspection company, Central City Mobil Services, Inc.

THE COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS' OPINION IS VACATED, THE DISTRICT COURT'S JUDGMENT IS REVERSED, AND THE MATTER IS REMANDED TO THE DISTRICT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

William R. McMahon, Tulsa, OK, and Terrel B. DoRemus, Tulsa, OK, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

Tracy Pierce Nester, McGivern, Gilliard, & Curthoys, for Defendant/Appellee Graebel-Oklahoma Movers, Inc.

Truman B. Rucker, Wilson, Cain & Acquaviva, Tulsa, OK, for Defendant/Appellee Central City Mobile Services, Inc.

COLBERT, J.


¶ 1 Plaintiff Dianna Craft has appealed from the district court's order granting summary judgment to Defendants Graebel-Oklahoma Movers, Inc., and Central City Mobile Services, Inc., in her lawsuit for damages arising from personal injuries.1 Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident that occurred in the course of her employment with Graebel's subcontractor, Propack, Inc. Graebel was Plaintiff's principal employer and Central City inspected and repaired the van in which she was riding. Plaintiff asserted that her injuries were exacerbated because both Graebel and Central City violated federal safety standards applicable to the van. We conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2 Graebel operates a moving and storage business. Propack leased equipment and employees to Graebel to provide packing services necessary to the fulfillment of Graebel's moving contracts. On March 28, 1998, Plaintiff and other Propack employees were returning from a packing job for Graebel. The van in which they were riding was struck in the right rear bumper by another vehicle, whose driver is not a party here. Plaintiff was injured, filed for workers' compensation benefits, and was adjudicated permanently and totally disabled by the workers' compensation court.

¶ 3 Plaintiff then filed this claim against Graebel and Central City in district court. She contended that both Graebel and Central City are liable for her injuries under common law and federal law. Plaintiff claimed her injuries were exacerbated by the lack of a working seat belt, a violation of federal safety standards applying to motor carriers like Graebel and inspectors like Central City.

¶ 4 Both Graebel and Central City filed motions for summary judgment. Graebel asserted that, as Plaintiff's "principal employer," it was protected by the exclusive remedy provision found in section 12 of Oklahoma's Workers' Compensation Act. Okla. Stat. tit. 85, §§ 1-211 (2001 & Supp.2006).2 Plaintiff agreed that Graebel was her principal employer, but contended that federal law preempts the exclusive remedy provision. In its motion for summary judgment, Central City asserted that it had only a duty to warn and that it had no duty to Plaintiff because she knew the seat belt was broken. Plaintiff countered that Central City had a greater duty under federal law to report the condition of the vans, including the lack of appropriate safety equipment.

¶ 5 In response to both motions for summary judgment, Plaintiff presented evidentiary materials in support of the following

178 P.3d 173

allegations: Propack vans were poorly maintained, regularly broke down, and failed to provide the most rudimentary safety equipment, including a sufficient number of seats for the employees assigned to the job. Employees routinely rode to job sites seated on boxes or on the engine mount between the front seats. Even if an employee had a proper seat, many of the seatbelts did not work. Graebel had the authority to insist that Propack's vans were in proper working order by virtue of the leasing contract and responsible Graebel personnel were directly and repeatedly informed of the condition of the vans.

¶ 6 Plaintiff also introduced evidence that Propack and Graebel had little financial incentive to keep the vans in proper working order. Vans were used only to transport employees and packing materials to job sites. Packing employees were paid for each box they packed, not by the hour. If a van broke down, stranding the employees until repairs could be made, Propack suffered no financial loss for the additional time its employees were out on the job (although Propack once paid for lodging when its employees were stranded overnight on their way back from West Texas). Any employee who complained usually went several days without receiving another job assignment. The poor condition of the vans was a subject of discussion and frustration among Graebel as well as Propack employees.

¶ 7 Propack's vans were routinely inspected and repaired by Central City, which had inspected the van in which Plaintiff was riding just days before the accident. According to Central City's inspection report, the seat belts and all other systems met federal standards. However, Plaintiff presented evidence that the seat belt was obviously broken and unusable when Central City performed the inspection.

¶ 8 The trial court granted both motions for summary judgment. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed. Plaintiff filed a petition for certiorari seeking this Court's review, which we have previously granted. The matter is now before this Court for disposition on the legal merits.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 9 We will affirm a summary judgment only if the moving parties have established that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law following a de novo review. Wathor v. Mut. Assurance Adm'rs, Inc., 2004 OK 2, ¶ 4, 87 P.3d 559, 561; Brown v. Alliance Real Estate Group, 1999 OK 7, ¶ 7, 976 P.2d 1043, 1045. All inferences and conclusions must be drawn in favor of the party opposing summary judgment. Wathor, 2004 OK 2, ¶ 4, 87 P.3d at 561.

III. DISCUSSION
A. GRAEBEL

¶ 10 Section 11 of the Workers' Compensation Act creates the no-fault liability employers bear to their injured employees. Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 11 (Supp.2006). In this classic "industrial bargain," Parret v. UNICCO Service Co., 2005 OK 54, ¶ 20, 127 P.3d 572, 578, section 12 protects those same employers from additional liability under the common law:

The liability prescribed in Section 11 of this title shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of the employer and any of his employees . . . at common law or otherwise, for such injury. . . .

Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 12 (Supp.2006). It is this protection that Graebel seeks.

¶ 11 Plaintiff asserts that federal law has preempted section 12's exclusive remedy provision. The federal government, acting through Congress, has the power to preempt state law under article VI, clause 2, of the United States Constitution. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 516, 112 S.Ct. 2608, 120 L.Ed.2d 407 (1992); Choate v. Champion Home Builders Co., 222 F.3d 788, 791 (10th Cir.2000). Plaintiff seeks a declaration that this state's limitation on common law liability is preempted. This presents a twist on traditional preemption theory, since a finding in this situation that the state's law is preempted would not necessarily mean that a federal law would replace the state's law. Instead, it could mean that the state's

178 P.3d 174

common law claim of ordinary negligence would be reinstated, a result not ordinarily contemplated in preemption analysis. With that observation, we proceed.

1. Preemption and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act

¶ 12 Plaintiff relies first on section 30103 of title 49, which contains both a preemption clause and a savings clause:

(b) Preemption.-(1) When a motor vehicle safety standard is in effect under this chapter, a State or a political subdivision of a State may prescribe or continue in effect a standard applicable to the same aspect of performance of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment only if the standard is identical to the standard prescribed under this chapter. . . .

* * *

(e) Common law liability.-Compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law.

49 U.S.C. § 30103 (emphasis added). Section 30103 is part of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act (also known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Authorization Act, originally codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1431 and recodified at 49 U.S.C. §§ 30101-30170 (chapter 301 of title 49)). This Act provides for the adoption of safety standards applicable to the manufacturers and distributors of motor vehicles. 49 U.S.C. §§ 30112 & 30115. While those safety standards are applicable to vehicles used by motor carriers such as Graebel, see 49 U.S.C. §§ 30103(a) & 13501-13508, the enforcement mechanisms contained in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act are not directed toward motor carriers or their agents, but...

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