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Falk v. Alliance Coal, LLC

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

August 16, 2013

CASSANDRA FALK, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JAMES JEFFREY FALK; AND JAMES BLAKE FALK AND LAURYN EMILY FALK, BY AND THROUGH THEIR NEXT FRIEND, MOTHER, AND CUSTODIAN CASSANDRA FALK APPELLANTS
v.
ALLIANCE COAL, LLC APPELLEE AND SANDY TRAVIS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JUSTIN TRAVIS; MELISSA CARTER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF MICHAEL W. CARTER; AND HAYDEN WAYNE CARTER, BY AND THROUGH HIS NEXT FRIEND, MOTHER, AND CUSTODIAN MELISSA CARTER APPELLANTS
v.
ALLIANCE COAL, LLC APPELLEE

APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE JAMES D. ISHMAEL, JR., JUDGE ACTION Nos. 11-CI-05433, 11-CI-02155

BRIEFS AND ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLANTS: John C. Whitfield

BRIEF AND ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLEES: P. Douglas Barr

BEFORE: ACREE, CHIEF JUDGE; MAZE AND STUMBO, JUDGES.

OPINION

STUMBO, JUDGE

These consolidated appeals stem from two summary judgments entered in favor of Alliance Coal, LLC. The summary judgments dismissed the claims of Appellants, the estates of three coal miners killed in mining accidents. We find no error and affirm.

On April 28, 2010, Justin Travis and Michael Carter were killed in a mining accident. The mine was run by Webster Coal Company (WCC), which is a subsidiary of Alliance Coal. On October 27, 2010, James Falk was killed in a mining accident. This mine was run by Riverview Coal, LLC (Riverview), which is also a subsidiary of Alliance Coal. In both cases, Appellants have received and continue to receive workers' compensation death benefits.

Appellants brought suit against Alliance Coal arguing that its own negligence led to the deaths of the coal miners. WCC and Riverview were not sued due to restrictions set forth in Kentucky's workers' compensation statutes which will be discussed in more detail later. The actions were brought by Appellants pursuant to Boggs v. Blue Diamond Coal Co., 590 F.2d 655 (6th Cir. 1979). After some discovery, Alliance Coal moved for summary judgment in both cases. It claimed it could not be sued because it was the workers' compensation insurer and Kentucky's workers' compensation act gives workers' compensation carriers immunity from suit. Alliance Coal argued that it was a self-insurer and that it was authorized by statute and administrative regulations to provide workers' compensation insurance through its own self-insurance program to all of its subsidiaries. The trial court ultimately agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Alliance Coal in both cases. These appeals followed.

The standard of review on appeal of a summary judgment is whether the trial court correctly found that there were no genuine issues as to any material fact and that the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure (CR) 56.03. . . . "The record must be viewed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment and all doubts are to be resolved in his favor." Steelvest, Inc. v. Scansteel Service Center, Inc., __ Ky. __, 807 S.W.2d 476, 480 (1991). Summary "judgment is only proper where the movant shows that the adverse party could not prevail under any circumstances." Steelvest, 807 S.W.2d at 480, citing Paintsville Hospital Co. v. Rose, __ Ky. __, 683 S.W.2d 255 (1985). Consequently, summary judgment must be granted "[o]nly when it appears impossible for the nonmoving party to produce evidence at trial warranting a judgment in his favor . . . ." Huddleston v. Hughes, __ Ky.App. __, 843 S.W.2d 901, 903 (1992)[.]

Scifres v. Kraft, 916 S.W.2d 779, 781 (Ky. App. 1996). All parties agree there are no issues of material fact in dispute and this case hinges on questions of law.

Pursuant to Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 342.690(1), some entities are granted immunity from tort actions when workers' compensation benefits are paid. KRS 342.690(1) states in relevant part:

If an employer secures payment of compensation as required by this chapter, the liability of such employer under this chapter shall be exclusive and in place of all other liability of such employer to the employee, his legal representative, husband or wife, parents, dependents, next of kin, and anyone otherwise entitled to recover damages from such employer at law or in admiralty on account of such injury or death. . . . The exemption from liability given an employer by this section shall also extend to such employer's carrier and to all employees, officers or directors of such employer or carrier[.]

This case revolves around whether or not Alliance Coal was the workers' compensation carrier for WCC and Riverview. "'Carrier' means any insurer, or legal representative thereof, authorized to insure the liability of employers under this chapter and includes a self-insurer[.]" KRS 342.0011(6). "'Self-insurer' is an employer who has been authorized under the provisions of this chapter to carry his own liability on his employees covered by this chapter[.]" KRS 342.0011(7).

Appellants argue that Alliance Coal is not the direct employer of the decedents nor is it the carrier of workers' compensation benefits; therefore, it is not entitled to immunity. Appellants claim that WCC and Riverview self-insure their own employees. Appellants claim that Alliance Coal is only the guarantor of workers' compensation benefits, not the carrier, and that a guarantor is not included within the immunity statute. We disagree ...


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