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Lind v. Barnes Tag Agency, Inc.

Supreme Court of Oklahoma

May 1, 2018

SAVANNAH NICOLE LIND, Administrator of the Estate of James David Lind, Sr. Plaintiff/Appellant,
v.
BARNES TAG AGENCY, INC., an Oklahoma corporation; JAMES BARNES a/k/a JIM T. ROY BARNES; JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 5; and JOHN DOE COMPANIES 1 THROUGH 5, Defendants/Appellees.

         ON CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CIVIL APPEALS, DIVISION IV

          Brandon A. Johnson, Grove, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

          Dan S. Folluo and Lauren M. Marciano, Rhodes, Hieronymus, Jones, Tucker, & Gable, P.L.L.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendants/Appellees Barnes Tag Agency, Inc. and James Barnes a/k/a Jim T. Roy Barnes.

          COMBS, C.J.

         ¶0 Plaintiff/Appellant, the administrator of the estate of a decedent killed by injuries suffered while performing work on real property, filed suit against the decedent's employer as well as the sole stockholder of the employer (who is also the property owner), alleging negligence. The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing they possessed immunity from suit pursuant to the provisions of the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Act, 85 O.S. §§ 1-413. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The administrator appealed, arguing the trial court erred by determining that Jim T. Roy Barnes, as the individual owner of the property, was immune from suit. The Court of Civil Appeals, Division IV, affirmed and this Court granted certiorari.

         ¶1 The question presented in this cause is whether the sole shareholder of a corporation, who individually owns a property where an employee of the corporation sustained fatal injuries, is immune from suit for common-law negligence in district court under the provisions of the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Act. We hold in the negative.

         I.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2 James David Lind, Sr. (Decedent) was an employee of Defendant/Appellee Barnes Tag Agency Inc. (BTA). Decedent was hired on January 14, 2010, to perform maintenance work on property owned individually by Defendant Jim T. Roy Barnes (Barnes), the sole stockholder of BTA. On February 21, 2010, there was an explosion on the property while Decedent was present, resulting in a fire. Descendent sustained severe injuries that led to his death on February 26, 2010.

         ¶3 On February 21, 2012, Decedent's children filed a form 3A in the Workers' Compensation Court, seeking compensation under the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Act (OWCA), 85 O.S. §§ 1-413 (repealed by Laws 2013, SB 1062, c. 208, § 171). The Workers' Compensation Court of Existing Claims entered orders in 2015 determining Decedent's injury arose out of the course and scope of his employment with BTA, and that Decedent's surviving minor children were entitled to death benefits. The Workers' Compensation Court of Existing Claims also determined, on November 17, 2015, that the Decedent was not an employee of Jim Barnes, and dismissed the workers' compensation claim against Jim Barnes individually with prejudice. No appeal was made from that order.

         ¶4 Plaintiff/Appellant Savannah Nicole Lind (Lind) is Decedent's adult daughter and the administrator of Decedent's estate. On February 21, 2012, Lind filed a wrongful death action in district court alleging Defendants breached a duty of care to assure that the premises were in a suitably safe condition. Defendants BTA and Barnes moved for summary judgment in the district court action, asserting Lind's district court action was barred by the exclusive remedy provision of the OWCA and her exclusive remedy lay in the Workers' Compensation Court of Existing Claims. On June 8, 2016, the trial court granted Defendants' motion for summary judgment, holding: 1) BTA was the employer of Decedent and benefits were sought and received under the OWCA; and 2) immunity from suit under the law extended to Defendants BTA and Barnes.

         ¶5 Lind appealed, filing a Petition in Error with this Court on July 1, 2016. Lind asserted the trial court erred by: 1) determining Lind could not pursue a third-party tort claim against Barnes individually for wrongful death; 2) determining the employer BTA's immunity from suit extended to Barnes, a third-party tortfeasor; 3) determining Barnes was the co-employee of Decedent within the context of the 85 O.S Supp. 2006 § 3; and 4) adopting an incorrect interpretation of 85 O.S.Supp. 2005 § 3. The matter was assigned to Court of Civil Appeals.

         ¶6 The Court of Civil Appeals, Division IV, issued an opinion on September 12, 2017, in which it determined the issue on appeal was whether Barnes was entitled to immunity from Lind's claim that Barnes was liable as a third-party tortfeasor pursuant to 85 O.S.Supp. 2006 § 44, which address claims against third persons. The Court of Civil Appeals concluded: 1) Barnes was not Decedent's co-employee within the meaning of 85 O.S.Supp. 2006 § 3; and 2) Barnes was protected from suit by his status as a corporate shareholder combined with the Workers' Compensation Court of Existing Claims' factual findings and award of benefits.

         ¶7 Lind filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with this Court on October 3, 2017. We granted certiorari on January 16, 2018, and the matter was assigned to this office on January 17, 2018.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶8 The appellate standard of review of summary judgment is de novo. [1] Boyle v. ASAP Energy, Inc., 2017 OK 82, ¶7, 408 P.3d 183; Tiger v. Verdigris Valley Electric Corp., 2016 OK 74, ¶13, 410 P.3d 1007; Lowery v. Echostar Satellite Corp., 2007 OK 38, ¶11, 160 P.3d 959. On appeal, this Court assumes plenary and non-deferential authority to reexamine a trial court's legal rulings. John v. St. Francis Hospital, Inc., 2017 OK 81, ¶8, 405 P.3d 681; Stevens v. Fox, 2016 OK 106, ¶13, 383 P.3d 269; Kluver v. Weatherford Hosp. Auth., 1993 OK 85, ¶14, 859 P.2d 1081.

         ¶9 Summary judgment will be affirmed only if the Court determines that there is no dispute as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Lowery, 2007 OK 38 at ¶11; Wathor v. Mut. Assur. Adm'rs, Inc., 2004 OK 2, ¶4, 87 P.3d 559; Oliver v. Farmers Ins. Croup of Cos., 1997 OK 71, ¶6, 941 P.2d 985. All inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the materials must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Tiger, 206 OK 74 at ¶13; Wathor, 2004 OK 2 at ¶4; Oliver, 1997 OK 71 at ¶6.

         III.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶10 This cause concerns the interpretation and application of several provisions of the OWCA that were in effect at the time of Decedent's injuries. Of primary importance is the OWCA's exclusive remedy provision, 85 O.S.Supp. 2006 § 12, which provides in pertinent part:

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, any architect, professional engineer, or land surveyor retained to perform professional services on a construction project, at common law or otherwise, for such injury, loss of services, or death, to the employee, or the spouse, personal representative, parents, or dependents of the employee, or any other person.

         At the outset, this Court notes it is undisputed on appeal in this matter that Decedent was found to be an employee of BTA by the Court of Existing Claims, and that BTA was ordered to pay death benefits to Decedent's surviving minor children. The trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of BTA, as Decedent's employer, was proper pursuant to the exclusive remedy provisions of 85 O.S.Supp. 2006 § 12, and Lind does not argue otherwise.

         ¶11 The question before this Court today is whether Barnes, individually, is protected from Lind's suit by the provisions of the OWCA. Title 85 O.S.Supp. 2006 § 44 addresses claims against third persons, and provides in pertinent part:

(a) If a worker entitled to compensation under the Workers' Compensation Act is injured or killed by the negligence or wrong of another not in the same employ, such injured worker shall, before any suit or claim under the Workers' Compensation Act, elect whether to take compensation under the Workers' Compensation Act, or to pursue his remedy against such other.

         A. Barnes Was not Decedent's Co-employee

         ¶12 Barnes first argument on appeal is that he was a co-employee of Decedent and thus 85 O.S.Supp. 2006 § 44 does not authorize Lind's suit against him personally. The COCA ...


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