Fulfer v. Sorrento Lactalis, Inc., 48853

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Writing for the CourtMOELLER, JUSTICE.
PartiesROBERT WADE FULFER, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. SORRENTO LACTALIS, INC., a Delaware corporation and a wholly-owned subsidiary of LACTALIS AMERICAN GROUP, INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendants-Respondents, and JOHN and JANE DOES, I through X, whose true identities are presently unknown, Defendants.
Docket Number48853
Decision Date01 November 2022

ROBERT WADE FULFER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.

SORRENTO LACTALIS, INC., a Delaware corporation and a wholly-owned subsidiary of LACTALIS AMERICAN GROUP, INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendants-Respondents,

and JOHN and JANE DOES, I through X, whose true identities are presently unknown, Defendants.

No. 48853

Supreme Court of Idaho, Boise

November 1, 2022


Appeal from the District Court of the Third Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Canyon County. Andrea Courtney, District Judge.

The judgment of the district court is reversed and remanded.

Johnson & Monteleone, Boise, for Appellant. Jacob Bottari argued.

Eberle, Berlin, Kading, Turnbow & McKlveen, Boise, for Respondent. Bradley Vandendries argued.

MOELLER, JUSTICE.

Robert Fulfer, a truck driver making a milk delivery, exited his truck and stepped down into a nine-inch-deep pothole, resulting in serious personal injuries. He was working for Ruan Logistics Corporation ("RLC"), which was contracted as a transportation and cargo-hauling provider by Sorrento Lactalis, Inc. ("SLI"). SLI provided a designated on-site parking area for drivers like Fulfer to pick up and drop off their loads.

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Fulfer filed a personal injury action against SLI seeking damages based on premises liability and negligence. SLI moved to dismiss pursuant to Idaho Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(c), arguing that it was immune from a tort action because it was a statutory employer of Fulfer, meaning that Idaho's Workers' Compensation laws provided Fulfer's exclusive remedy. In response, Fulfer argued that an exception to the exclusive remedy rule applied. That exception allows an action in tort when an employer, statutory or otherwise, consciously disregards knowledge of a hazardous situation, which amounts to willful or unprovoked physical aggression. The district court determined Fulfer's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because he (1) failed to comply with Idaho's notice pleading requirements by not addressing statutory employer immunity, and (2) failed to allege specific facts required for establishing an exception to the exclusive remedy rule based on this Court's decision in Gomez v. Crookham Co., 166 Idaho 249, 457 P.3d 901, 904 (2020), which was controlling at the time.[1]Accordingly, the district court dismissed Fulfer's complaint without prejudice and later denied Fulfer's motion to reconsider and for leave to file a second amended complaint. Fulfer appealed. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse and remand.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Robert Fulfer is a truck driver employed by RLC. RLC is a transportation and cargo-hauling provider for SLI, a Delaware corporation. SLI is a wholly owned subsidiary of Lactalis American Group, Inc., also a Delaware corporation.

On April 21, 2018, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Fulfer arrived at SLI's facility in Nampa, Idaho, to deliver milk. Fulfer parked his truck in the parking area designated by SLI for the drivers of providers, like RLC, to pick up or drop off their loads. When Fulfer exited his truck, his right foot unexpectedly stepped down into a nine-inch-deep pothole, causing him to lose his balance, hyperextend portions of his body, and suffer serious personal injuries. Fulfer alleges he suffered "a right arm bicep tear and injury to his right arm rotator cuff, both of which required surgery, injuries to his left thumb, low back, and right hip, … [the] back injury also required surgical repair,

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[and caused] physical and mental pain and suffering, loss of the enjoyment of life, emotional distress, and the impairment of faculties and physical function."

On April 10, 2020, Fulfer filed a complaint against SLI, alleging tort theories of premises liability and negligence. SLI filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(c). SLI argued that the complaint should be dismissed as a matter of law because SLI was Fulfer's statutory employer under Idaho's Workers' Compensation laws and was, therefore, immune from the tort claims. SLI claimed that under Idaho Code section 72-211, the exclusive remedy for an employee for injuries arising in the course of employment is provided under Idaho's Workers' Compensation laws. Fulfer opposed the motion, arguing that Fulfer met the requirements of the exception to the exclusive remedy for "willful or unprovoked physical aggression." In reply, SLI argued that a motion to dismiss looks only at the pleadings and that Fulfer's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

At the hearing on the motion to dismiss, the district court requested supplemental briefing on two issues:

1) Whether the physical aggression exception to the Worker's [sic] Compensation exclusive remedy rule, as restated in Gomez v. Crookham Co., 457 P.3d 901 (Idaho 2020), extends beyond direct employers to statutory employers such as [SLI]; and
2) [w]hether [Fulfer's] use of the words "careless negligent, and/or reckless manner" in Paragraph 16 of the Complaint satisfies the "conscious disregard of knowledge that injury would occur" standard as restated in Gomez.

SLI filed a supplemental memorandum arguing that the exception for willful or unprovoked acts of physical aggression did not apply to statutory employers because, unlike direct employers, statutory employers lack control or direction over the actions of an employee. SLI also argued that the complaint was not sufficient to allege application of the exception because the complaint did not include the words "willful and wanton" or "gross negligence." Fulfer responded by noting that the Idaho Rules of Civil Procedure only require a short and plain statement of the claim-enough to notify the other party of the claims against it. Fulfer argued that he was not required to specifically address a potential affirmative defense, like the applicability of the statutory employer exclusion, in the complaint. Fulfer additionally argued that neither Gomez nor the Idaho Code restrict application of the exception to the exclusive remedy rule to only direct employers. In response, SLI argued that the pleading standard was irrelevant because the motion to dismiss only

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asked the court to determine whether Fulfer's claims of premises liability and negligence were actionable against SLI.

Following supplemental briefing, the district court took up the motion for judgment on the pleadings and motion to dismiss on September 18, 2020. Following the hearing, but before the district court issued its decision, Fulfer moved to amend his complaint. Attached to the motion was a draft first amended complaint, which included additional language alleging that SLI knew of the dangerous condition of the designated parking lot and "acted in a careless, reckless, wanton, and grossly negligent manner." The proposed first amended complaint stated that SLI's actions qualified for the willful physical aggression exception to the statutory employer rule. On October 16, 2020, the district court issued an oral decision granting Fulfer's motion to amend the complaint and allowed SLI the opportunity to renew the motion to dismiss. The district court deferred ruling on whether to grant or deny the motion for judgment on the pleadings and motion to dismiss inasmuch as it had just granted Fulfer's motion to amend.[2]

After Fulfer filed an amended complaint, SLI filed a second motion for judgment on the pleadings and motion to dismiss the amended complaint. SLI again argued that because SLI is a statutory employer of Fulfer without control over Fulfer's actions on the job, SLI is immune from Fulfer's tort claims. Fulfer opposed the motion, arguing that judgment on the pleadings was improper because SLI had not yet filed an answer and whether SLI had control over Fulfer was an issue of fact not yet raised by the pleadings. SLI replied, arguing that Fulfer failed to meet his burden of proof that the exception applies because he did not plead any facts or theories that SLI specifically engaged in conduct knowing that injury to Fulfer was substantially likely to occur.

At the conclusion of the hearing on the pending motions on December 18, 2020, the district court issued an oral ruling. The court concluded that Fulfer's amended complaint "does not meet the high bar of pleading any facts related to willful or unprovoked physical aggression on the part of [SLI]." Accordingly, the district court dismissed Fulfer's first amended complaint without prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted pursuant to Idaho Rule of

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Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).[3] On December 22, 2020, the district court issued a judgment dismissing Fulfer's first amended complaint without prejudice.

Fulfer then moved the district court to reconsider its order dismissing his first amended complaint, to set aside or alter the judgment, or, to grant him leave to file a second amended complaint. Fulfer argued that "1) [the district court] prematurely ruled on the merits of this case, 2) all reasonable inferences were not drawn in [his] favor [], 3) [he] properly stated a claim for relief, and 4) [he] is not required to plead facts that negate the affirmative defense of the Exclusive Remedy Rule." SLI opposed the motion, arguing that dismissal was correct and granting leave to file a second amended complaint would be procedurally incorrect since the claim had been dismissed. Following a subsequent hearing, the district court denied Fulfer's motion to reconsider and his request for leave to file the second amended complaint. The district court determined the first amended complaint's "broad strokes sounding in negligence [were] insufficient to trigger the exclusivity exception. . . ." Fulfer timely appealed, asserting three categories of error: the District Court...

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