Estate of Teague v. Crossroads Coop. Ass'n
|31 May 2013
|Estate ofJoseph James Teague, deceased, by and throughhis Personal Representative, Joani M. Martinosky, Appellant, v. Crossroads Cooperative Association, a Nebraska Corporation, Appellee.
|Nebraska Supreme Court
OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE
Appeal from the District Court for Cheyenne County: Derek C. Weimer, Judge. Affirmed.
R. Kevin O'Donnell and Michael D. Samuelson, of McGinley, O'Donnell, Reynolds & Korth, P.C., L.L.O., for appellant.
Steven W. Olsen and John F. Simmons, of Simmons Olsen Law Firm, P.C., for appellee.
[286 Neb. 1]1. Judgments: Statutes: Appeal and Error. Concerning questions of law and statutory interpretation, an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the decision made by the court below.
2. Motions to Dismiss: Appeal and Error. A district court's grant of a motion to dismiss is reviewed de novo.
3. Motions to Dismiss: Pleadings: Appeal and Error. When reviewing an order dismissing a complaint, the appellate court accepts as true all facts which are well pled and the proper and reasonable inferences of law and fact which may be drawn therefrom, but not the plaintiff's conclusion.
4. Workers' Compensation. The Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act is an employee's exclusive remedy against an employer for an accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment.
5. Motions to Dismiss: Torts: Workers' Compensation: Proof. For an employee to prevail against a motion to dismiss a tort action against his or her employer, the employee must allege sufficient facts that, if true, would demonstrate the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act does not apply.
6. Workers' Compensation. The primary object of the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act is to do away with the inadequacies and defects of the common-law remedies; to destroy the common-law defenses; and, in the employments affected, to give compensation, regardless of the fault of the employer.
7. Actions: Motions to Dismiss. For purposes of a motion to dismiss, a court is not obliged to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, and threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.
8. Workers' Compensation. Delay, cost, and uncertainty are contrary to the underlying purposes of the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act.
9. Workers' Compensation: Legislature: Intent: Employer and Employee: Time. The Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act was intended by the Legislature to simplify legal proceedings and to bring about a speedy settlement of disputes between the injured employee and the employer by taking the place of expensive court actions with tedious delays and technicalities.
10. Workers' Compensation: Jurisdiction: Legislature. As a statutorily created court, it is the role of the Legislature to determine what acts fall within the Workers' Compensation Court's exclusive jurisdiction.
11. Workers' Compensation: Jurisdiction: Intent. Absent an amendment to the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act, an appellate court will not judicially create a “substantially certain” exception from the act's intended exclusive jurisdiction over workplace injuries.
12. Motions to Dismiss: Records. Even novel issues may be determined on a motion to dismiss where the dispute is not as to the underlying facts but as to the interpretation of the law, and development of the record will not aid in the resolution of the issues.
13. Equal Protection. The Equal Protection Clause does not forbid classifications; it simply keeps governmental decisionmakers from treating differently persons who are in all relevant aspects alike.
14. Special Legislation. A legislative act constitutes special legislation if (1) it creates an arbitrary and unreasonable method of classification or (2) it creates a permanently closed class.
15. Workers' Compensation: Employer and Employee: Legislature. Employers and employees stand in different relations to the common undertaking; it was rational for the Legislature to recognize this fact when determining employers' and employees' respective rights and liabilities under the workers' compensation system.
16. Workers' Compensation: Negligence: Legislature. It was not arbitrary for the Legislature to determine coverage under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act based on whose willful negligence caused the injury.
17. Torts: Employer and Employee: Legislature. The Legislature made a rational distinction between intentional tort victims who are employees and intentional tort victims who are not employees. Workers' compensation law reflects a policy choice that employers bear the costs of the employees' work-related injuries, because employers are in the best position to avoid the risk of loss by improving workplace safety.
The employer in this case willfully violated safety regulations and thereby caused the tragic death of one of its employees. The employee's estate brought tort actions against the employer in district court rather than seeking compensation under the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act (the Act).1 This it cannot do. Despite the egregiousness of the employer's conduct, the injury was still an “accident” as defined by the Act. The Act does not thereby unconstitutionally discriminate between employees and nonemployees or employee victims of employer willful negligence and employee victims of their own willful negligence. We therefore affirm the district court's dismissal of the estate's complaint.
Joseph James Teague worked for Crossroads Cooperative Association (Crossroads). Teague was asked by his supervisor to enter a grain bin and shovel grain into the center of the bin's conical base in order to facilitate removal of grain from the bin. Teague died of asphyxiation after being engulfed in grain.
The grain bin was approximately 58 feet tall and 21 1/ 2 feet in diameter. The depth of the grain in the bin was high enough to present an engulfment hazard and was higher on the sides than in the middle, such that it could slide onto employees. In violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, Teague's supervisor sent Teague into the bin without a lifeline or any other equipment that could prevent engulfment past Teague's waist. The Crossroads facility where Teague worked also lacked adequate equipment for a rescue operation if engulfment were to occur, also in violation of OSHA regulations.
In accordance with Crossroads' customary practices, Teague's supervisor kept the auger running in the bin in order to facilitate extraction of the grain. This was in clear violation of OSHA regulations and created movement of the grain, increasing the engulfment hazard.
In further violation of OSHA regulations mandating that a supervisor maintain communication with an employee in a grain bin at all times, Teague's supervisor stepped momentarily away from his observation of Teague in the bin. When the supervisor returned, Teague was dead.
OSHA assessed civil penalties against Crossroads. In addition, Crossroads pleaded guilty to the criminal charge of willfully violating OSHA regulations by knowingly permitting an employee to enter a grain bin in violation of safety standards requiring that an auger system be turned off, locked out, and tagged while an employee is in a grain bin.
The personal representative of Teague's estate (Estate) brought this action in the district court against Crossroads for wrongful death and assault and battery, and for a declaratory judgment that either the Act does not apply or, alternatively, that it is unconstitutional on its face and as applied.
The district court granted Crossroads' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court relied on Abbott v. Gould, Inc., 2 wherein we held that the employer's knowing misrepresentation concerning the hazards of the job did not take the employer's conduct outside the exclusivity of the Act. The court found that the facts alleged in the Estate's petition, even if true, would not constitute “ ‘willful and unprovoked physical aggression’ ” by an employee, officer, or director of Crossroads. In other words, the court found that the Estate's allegations of assault and battery were legal conclusions unsupported by the facts alleged. The court concluded that the incident resulting in Teague's death was an “accident” under the Act,3 and the court found no merit to the Estate's claims that the Act is unconstitutional. The Estate appeals.
The Estate makes the following assignments of error: (1) The district court erred in sustaining Crossroads' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; (2) the district court erred in determining that the Act applies to this case; (3) the district court erred in failing to recognize an exception to the exclusivity provisions of the Act in light of the facts of this case; (4) the district court erred in failing to conclude that by applying the exclusivity rule of the Act to the Estate, the Act improperly deprives it, and other similar individuals, of due process, equal protection, and a right to trial by jury and that the Act imposes special legislation; (5) the district court erred in dismissing the Estate's constitutional claims because the ultimate success of constitutional arguments are not a proper issue under a motion to dismiss pursuant to the Nebraska Court Rules of Pleading in Civil Cases.4
Concerning questions of law and statutory interpretation, an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the decision made by the court below.5
A district court's grant of a motion to dismiss is reviewed de novo. 6
When reviewing an order dismissing a...
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