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Schiel v. Union Oil Co. of California

Supreme Court of Alaska

November 20, 2009

Joseph SCHIEL, Plaintiff,
v.
UNION OIL COMPANY OF CALIFORNIA, Defendant.

Peter R. Ehrhardt, Kenai, for Plaintiff.

Erin B. Marston, Marston & Cole, P.C., Anchorage, for Defendant.

John W. Erickson, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Talis J. Colberg, Attorney General, Juneau, for Amicus Curiae State of Alaska.

Gary M. Guarino, Assistant United States Attorney, and Nelson P. Cohen, United States Attorney, Anchorage, and Gregory G. Katsas, Assistant Attorney General, C. Frederick Beckner III, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, J. Patrick Glynn, Director, Torts Branch, David S. Fishback, Assistant Director, Adam Bain, Senior Trial Counsel, Department of Justice, Washington D.C., for Amicus Curiae United States of America.

Before : FABE, Chief Justice, EASTAUGH, CARPENETI, WINFREE, and CHRISTEN, Justices.

OPINION

CARPENETI, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

We accepted certification in this case to determine whether the 2004 amendments to AS 23.30.045(a) and AS 23.30.055 violate the plaintiff's right to equal protection or due process under the Alaska Constitution. Applying minimum scrutiny, we hold that they do not.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Joseph Schiel sued Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL or the company) for injuries he suffered when he was working on UNOCAL's Grayling Drilling Platform. Schiel was an employee of Peak Oilfield Services at the time of the injury. He lost two fingers when he was going down a ladder and put his hand on a skid rail for balance; a rig jack moved on the skid rail and crushed his hand. Peak paid workers' compensation benefits to Schiel. Schiel brought a third-party tort action against UNOCAL in superior court, and the company removed the case to the United States District Court. After removal to federal court, UNOCAL moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act [1] barred Schiel's tort claims because the company was Schiel's statutory employer and therefore immune from suit. Schiel opposed and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, contending that the 2004 amendments to the act, which expanded its exclusive liability provisions to include project owners, violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Alaska Constitution. At the same time he filed his summary judgment motion, Schiel moved the United States District Court, citing Alaska Rule of Appellate Procedure 407,[2] to certify to this court the question of the constitutionality of these statutory amendments.

United States District Court Judge Timothy M. Burgess issued a certification order requesting that we answer two questions: (1) whether the 2004 amendments to AS 23.30.045(a) and .055 violate the Equal Protection provisions of the Alaska Constitution; and (2) whether the 2004 amendments to AS 23.30.045(a) and .055 violate the Due Process provisions of the Alaska Constitution. We agreed to accept certification, heard oral argument on the matter, and now answer both questions in the negative.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A decision by this court to accept a certified question from another court under Appellate Rule 407(a) involves determinative questions of Alaska law for which there is no controlling precedent.[3] " In deciding a certified question of law, we must ‘ stand in the shoes of the certifying court, yet exercise our independent judgment.’ " [4] We exercise our independent judgment, selecting the rule of law that is most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy.[5]

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Alaska Statutes 23.30.045(a) and 23.30.055 Do Not Violate Schiel's Right to Equal Protection Under the Alaska Constitution.

In 2004 the Twenty-Third Alaska State Legislature amended the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act, extending liability for workers' compensation coverage to project owners and providing immunity from tort liability to both general contractors and project owners.[6] Before enactment of these amendments, a general contractor was liable for workers' compensation benefits to a subcontractor's employee when the subcontractor failed to secure workers' compensation; [7] in addition, an injured worker could sue a general contractor for negligence even though the ...


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