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Akins v. C & J Energy Services Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

August 7, 2019

BELENDA LEE AKINS, Individually, and as Surviving Spouse, and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Brian Dwayne Akins, Deceased, Plaintiff,



         Before this Court is Plaintiff Belenda Lee Akins' Motion for Summary Judgment on Intervenor Great Midwest Insurance Company's (“GMIC”) claims. See Doc. 52. The issue presented is straightforward and purely legal: is 85A O.S. § 43 unconstitutional under Article 23, Section 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution? Having considered the parties' filings, see Docs. 52, 56-57, the Court finds as follows.

         I. Background

         The material facts are uncontested. See Doc. 56, at 5. On November 21, 2017, Brian Dwayne Akins was involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident while in the course of his employment with Two Guns Trucking Inc. See Doc. 52, at 9. Plaintiff, Mr. Akins' surviving spouse, filed a workers' compensation claim on behalf of herself and her dependent child, Cody Dale Akins, against Two Guns Trucking and its workers' compensation insurance carrier, GMIC. See Doc. 49, at 2; Doc. 51, at 1; see also Doc. 52, at 10; Doc. 56, at 5. On May 23, 2018, the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission entered an order awarding death benefits to Plaintiff and her son. Id. The Commission awarded to Plaintiff (1) a $100, 000 lump sum; (2) weekly benefits of $590.63, starting November 21, 2017, and continuing for so long as Plaintiff meets the statutory eligibility requirements; and (3) funeral expenses. See Doc. 52, at 10. The Commission also awarded Cody Akins a $25, 000 lump sum and weekly benefits of $126.56, which ran from November 21, 2017, until December 13, 2018, when they were terminated by the Commission. Id. GMIC, as Two Guns Trucking's insurance carrier, paid these benefits to Plaintiff and her son, and it continues to pay them to Plaintiff. See Doc. 49, at 2; Doc. 51, at 2; Doc. 56, at 5.

         Plaintiff also filed a wrongful death action in the District Court of Oklahoma County on May 1, 2018, against Defendants C&J Energy Services, Inc., and C&J Spec-Rent Services, Inc., alleging negligence and gross negligence and seeking wrongful death and punitive damages. See Doc. 52, at 10-11. Defendants removed the action to this Court on May 16, 2018. See Doc. 1. On March 28, 2019, Plaintiff and Defendants reached a confidential settlement in this suit. See Doc. 52, at 10-11; see also Order, Doc. 48. Upon hearing of this settlement, GMIC moved to intervene in this case on April 10, 2019, asserting a statutory right of recovery against Defendants, a right of reimbursement against Plaintiff, and/or equitable subrogation and indemnity rights. See Doc. 42; see also Doc. 52, at 11; Doc. 56, at 6. The Court granted the motion to intervene, GMIC filed its complaint in intervention, and Plaintiff and Defendants answered. See Docs. 48-51. Plaintiff now moves for summary judgment, arguing that the statute grounding Intervenor's claims is unconstitutional. See generally Doc. 52.

         II. Motion for Summary Judgment Standard

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court must inquire “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). In doing so, the Court construes all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Macon v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 743 F.3d 708, 712- 13 (10th Cir. 2014).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiff's sole contention on summary judgment is that 85A O.S. § 43 is unconstitutional under Article 23, Section 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution. Under this constitutional section,

[t]he right of action to recover damages for injuries resulting in death shall never be abrogated, and the amount recoverable shall not be subject to any statutory limitation, provided however, that the Legislature may provide an amount of compensation under the Workers' Compensation Law for death resulting from injuries suffered in employment covered by such law, in which case the compensation so provided shall be exclusive, and the Legislature may enact statutory limits on the amount recoverable in civil actions or claims against the state or any of its political subdivisions.

         Okla. Const. art. XXIII, § 7. The state statutory provision at issue, part of Oklahoma's Administrative Workers' Compensation Act, 85A O.S. § 1 et seq., preserves the right of an employee's dependents to “make a claim or maintain an action in court against any third party for [the employee's] injury, ” even where a “claim for compensation against an[] employer or carrier” for that employee's death has been made. 85A O.S. § 43(A)(1)(a). However, where such an action is brought against a third-party tortfeasor, the employer or its compensation insurance carrier “shall be entitled to reasonable notice and opportunity to join in the action.” Id. § 43(A)(1)(b). “If the employer or employer's carrier join in the action against a third party for injury or death, they shall be entitled to a first lien on two-thirds (2/3) of the net proceeds recovered in the action that remain after the payment of the reasonable costs of collection, for the payment to them of the amount paid and to be paid by them as compensation to the injured employee or his or her dependents.” Id. § 43(A)(1)(c); see also Id. at § 43(A)(2) (“The commencement of an action by an employee['s] . . . dependents against a third party for damages . . . shall not affect the rights of the . . . dependents to recover compensation, but any amount recovered by the . . . dependents from a third party shall be applied as follows: . . . (b) the employer or carrier, as applicable, shall receive two-thirds (2/3) of the remainder of the recovery or the amount of the workers' compensation lien, whichever is less . . . .”).[1]

         In seeking a declaration that a state statute is unconstitutional, Plaintiff faces formidable hurdles:

In considering the constitutionality of a statute, courts are guided by well-established principles and a heavy burden is cast on those challenging a legislative enactment to show its unconstitutionality. Every presumption is to be indulged in favor of a statute's constitutionality. A legislative act is presumed to be constitutional and will be upheld unless it is clearly, palpably and plainly inconsistent with the Constitution. If two . . . interpretations of a statute are possible, only one of which would render it unconstitutional, a court is bound to give the statute an interpretation which will render it constitutional, unless constitutional infirmity is shown beyond a reasonable doubt. The nature of [a] Court's inquiry is limited to constitutional validity, not policy. It is not the place of . . . any court[] to concern itself with a statute's propriety, desirability, wisdom, or its practicality as a working proposition. A court's function, when the constitutionality of a statute is put at issue, is limited to a determination of the validity or invalidity of the legislative provision and a court's function extends no farther in our system of government.

Lee v. Bueno, 2016 OK 97, ¶¶ 7-8, 381 P.3d 736, 740 (emphasis added) (citations and paragraph breaks omitted); see also Lafalier v. Lead-Impacted Communities RelocationAssistance Tr., 2010 OK 48, ¶ 15, 237 P.3d 181, 188-89 (“Even though the moving party must show that there is no dispute of fact and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law, there is a presumption that every statute is constitutional. . . . We ...

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