Wells v. Okla. Roofing & Sheet Metal, L.L.C., 112,844

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Citation457 P.3d 1020
Docket NumberNo. 112,844,112,844
Parties Crystal WELLS, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Robert Young, Deceased, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. OKLAHOMA ROOFING & SHEET METAL, L.L.C., and Oklahoma Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc., Defendants/Appellees.
Decision Date18 June 2019

457 P.3d 1020

Crystal WELLS, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Robert Young, Deceased, Plaintiff/Appellant,
OKLAHOMA ROOFING & SHEET METAL, L.L.C., and Oklahoma Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc., Defendants/Appellees.

No. 112,844

Supreme Court of Oklahoma.

FILED JUNE 18, 2019

James K. Secrest, II, Edward J. Main, SECREST, HILL, BUTLER & SECREST, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Appellees.

Larry A. Tawwater, Darren M. Tawwater, THE TAWWATER LAW FIRM, P.L.L.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellant.

Mike Hunter1 , ATTORNEY GENERAL, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Colbert, J.

¶1 The issue presented on certiorari review is whether intentional torts are within the purview of the workers' compensation scheme at Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 12 (2001 and Supp. 2010)2 and whether this part of § 12 is an unconstitutional special law in violation of Okla. Const. art. 5, §§ 46, 59.3 Based on this Court's review of the undisputed facts, the Oklahoma Constitution, and applicable laws, we find that the portion of § 12 that includes intentional torts is not within the walls of the workers' compensation scheme or jurisdiction. This analysis applies equally to subsequent iterations found in

457 P.3d 1023

Okla. Stat. tit. 85A, § 5(B)(2)(2013),4 209(B),5 and Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 302(B)(2011) (now repealed). Accordingly, the district court's order is reversed and the matter is remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with today's pronouncement.


¶2 On June 27, 2011, Robert Young, an employee of Oklahoma Roofing & Sheet Metal, Inc., and Oklahoma Roofing & Sheet Metal, L.L.C. (collectively, Employer), was working on a roof applying a membrane roof on a three-story building when he was required by Employer to unhook his single line lanyard requiring him to cross over two coworkers. He walked ten feet beyond the point where he had unhooked his lanyard when he fell, landing on an awning thirty feet below, and then he rolled off the awning and fell onto bricks on the ground twelve feet below to his death. Prior to the date of Wells injury and death, Oklahoma Roofing and Sheet Metal, Inc., was cited for a violation related to the duty to have a sufficient fall protection system.

¶3 Crystal Wells, individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Robert Young, Deceased (Wells), commenced an action in district court seeking damages for Decedent's death and declaratory relief. Wells's first amended petition alleged Decedent's death was the result of Employer's intentional tort. Specifically, Wells alleged that Employer provided and intended Decedent to use a single-line lanyard fall-protection system that required Decedent to temporarily unhook his safety anchor in order to pass over the other co-workers working on the roof. Wells alleged that when the anchor was unhooked, the fall protection system was inoperable; and therefore, unable to prevent an employee's fall like the instant fall which led to Decedent's death. Wells alleged Employer knew the single-line system would lead to Decedent's death; that Employer's actions were willful, wanton, and intentional; that Employer was found to be a repeat violator of the Occupational and Safety Health Administration's (OSHA) safety rules; that Employer was fined by OSHA for acts related to Decedent's death;6 and that Employer was previously cited on two7 separate occasions

457 P.3d 1024

"by the United States Government for violating various Federal requirements regarding the fall-protection equipment." Wells alleged Employer's actions were willful, wanton, and intentional, with specific knowledge of the dangerous and potentially lethal conditions and thus, her remedy was not limited to those benefits provided by the Workers' Compensation Act. In addition, Wells sought declaratory relief to declare the exclusivity provision of Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 12 (2001 and Supp. 2010) unconstitutional as a special law and therefore, inapplicable to her action. Employer filed a motion to dismiss, essentially alleging that Wells's claims were barred by § 12. In relevant part, that section states:

The liability [of the Act] shall be exclusive ... except in the case of an intentional tort, .... An intentional tort shall exist only when the employee is injured as a result of willful, deliberate, specific intent of the employer to cause such injury. Allegations or proof that the employer had knowledge that such injury was substantially certain to result from its conduct shall not constitute an intentional tort. The issue of whether an act is an intentional tort shall be a question of law for the court .... (emphasis added).

¶4 The district court declared § 12 constitutional and granted Employer's motion to dismiss. The court held that, while Wells's allegations met the "substantial certainty" element set forth in Parret v. UNICCO Serv. Co., 2005 OK 54, 127 P.3d 572, it did not satisfy the specific intent definition prescribed in § 12. Plaintiff Wells appealed.

¶5 Upon review, the COCA found that, in the context of the workers' compensation law, § 12 defined an "intentional tort" much narrower than the definition utilized in a garden-variety intentional tort action, although both types of actions are litigated in courts of general jurisdiction. As applied, § 12 created a subset of litigants and treated those litigants differently than other similarly-situated litigants. The COCA reversed the district court's determination and held § 12 unconstitutional as a special law. Employer sought certiorari review.


¶6 Decedent's work-related death occurred on June 27, 2011. The law in effect at the time of Decedent's death, including claims for injuries, is governed by Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 12 (2001 and Supp. 2010). Vasquez v. Dillard's, Inc., 2016 OK 89, ¶ 25 n.60, 381 P.3d 768, 786 ; Holliman v. Twister Drilling Co., 2016 OK 82, ¶ 5, 377 P.3d 133, 134.

¶7 At issue is the constitutionality and application of Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 12 (2001 and Supp. 2010). A constitutional challenge to a statute's "validity, construction and application are legal questions this Court reviews de novo." John v. St. Francis Hosp., 2017 OK 81, ¶ 8, 405 P.3d 681, 685. De novo review is the proper standard also for reviewing the trial court's grant of a motion to dismiss. Wilson v. State ex rel. State Election Bd., 2012 OK 2, ¶ 4, 270 P.3d 155, 157 (citation omitted). Generally, motions to dismiss are "disfavored and granted only when there are no facts consistent with the allegations under any cognizable legal theory or there are insufficient facts under a cognizable legal theory." Id. Last, we assume "plenary independent and non-deferential authority to reexamine a trial court's legal rulings." John v. St. Francis Hosp., 2017 OK 81, ¶ 8, 405 P.3d 681, 685 (internal citation omitted).


A. Specific Intent and Substantial Certainty are Nomenclatures of an Intentional Tort

¶8 At the outset, it is critical to this Court's analysis to bring into focus what constitutes an intentional tort while fortifying the walls of the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation's

457 P.3d 1025

exclusivity provision. In general, an employer's liability for an employee's injuries is limited to the exclusive purview of the Workers' Compensation Court, except in cases of an intentional injury and, although not applicable here, "where the employer has failed to secure the payment of compensation for the injured employee." Okla. Stat. tit. 85, § 12 (2001 and Supp. 2010). It is well-settled that the common law divides actionable tortious conduct into two categories: (1) accidental and (2) willful acts that result in intended or unintended harm. Graham v. Keuchel, 1993 OK 6, ¶ 49, 847 P.2d 342, 362. Parret v. UNICCO Serv. Co., reflects that dichotomy. 2005 OK 54, ¶ 12, 127 P.3d 572, 575.

¶9 In Parret, a worker died when he was electrocuted while replacing emergency lights at a job site as ordered to do by his employer even though the employee knew that the lights were "hot or energized." Id. ¶¶ 3-4, 127 P.3d at 574. This Court settled the question that only an employer's intentional acts fall outside of the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation exclusivity provision. Id. ¶ 24, 127 P.3d at 579. Our review in Parret, however, was limited in scope to the two questions certified by the Federal court. Id. ¶ 1, 127 P.3d at 573-74. Relevant here, is question one, seeking guidance on the application of Oklahoma's intentional tort standard—namely, the "true intentional tort" and "substantial certainty." Id. ¶ 9, 127 P.3d at 575.

¶10 Parret reiterated that an employer's intentional acts against its employee come within the exclusivity exception to the workers' compensation laws, as intentional acts are neither accidental in nature nor arise out of the normal course and scope of an employee/employer relationship. Id. ¶¶ 8-9, 127 P.3d at 575. There, we stressed that the legal justification for an intentional tort action at common law, is the non-accidental, deliberate character of the injury judged from the employer's subjective standpoint. Id. ¶ 24, 127 P.3d at 579. Our focus was not limited to a particular employee and the...

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