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Lucas v. ICG Beckley, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

February 23, 2018

JOHN R. LUCAS, et al., Plaintiffs,
ICG BECKLEY, LLC, et al., Defendants.



         Pending before the Court is Defendants ICG Beckley, LLC (“ICG Beckley”) and Arch Coal, Inc.'s (“Arch Coal”) unopposed Motion for Summary Judgment.[1] (ECF No. 41.) For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of an injury Plaintiff John Lucas (“Lucas”) suffered on May 5, 2013, while rock dusting an approximately half-mile portion of slope inside the Beckley Pocahontas Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia. (ECF No. 1-1 at 7-8 ¶¶ 8, 10, 15-16.) ICG Beckley, a subsidiary of Arch Coal, operated that mine. (Id. at 6 ¶ 2.) Lucas was working with two co-workers to rock dust the slope “by means of a rock duster . . . attached to the end of a lowboy, which lowboy was attached to a hoist car.” (Id. at 8 ¶ 11.) According to the Complaint, the lowboy held eight pallets loaded with forty- to eighty-pound bags of rock dust. (Id. ¶ 12.) The three workers sat inside the hoist car while the rock dust was applied, and when the rock duster emptied, the workers exited the hoist car to refill the rock duster tank with the bags of rock dust located on the pallets. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) To refill the rock duster, Lucas “remove[d] bags of rock dust and carr[ied] them at ¶ 18-percent slope” to the two other workers who dumped the bags' contents into the rock duster. (Id. ¶ 14.) They repeated this process until the rock duster was refilled. (Id.)

         At some time during the day, the rock duster needed refilled. The co-worker operating the hoist car stopped it so the employees could exit the car. (Id. ¶ 15.) Lucas went down to the lowboy “to retrieve 50-pound bags of rock dust at which time the brake failed, causing the hoist car and lowboy to free fall approximately 20-25 feet before coming to a stop.” (Id.) The parties dispute whether the car(s) actually moved at this time. (See ECF No. 42 at 4 (citations omitted).) Four pallets, holding a total of approximately seventy forty- to eighty-pound bags of rock dust, allegedly struck Lucas, causing him to fall against the rock duster and his leg to be pinned against it. (ECF No. 1-1 at 8-9 ¶ 16.) Lucas' co-workers freed him, but as a result of the hoist car brake's failure, Lucas allegedly suffered leg and back injuries. (Id. at 9 ¶¶ 17-18; 12 ¶ 38(e).) Defendants, however, assert that Lucas only suffered injury to one of his legs from this incident.[2](See ECF No. 42 at 4-5.)

         Two ICG Beckley employees interviewed Lucas for an internal accident report, and according to the Complaint Lucas drove himself to Raleigh General Hospital after one of those other employees allegedly cancelled the summoned ambulance. (ECF No. 1-1 at 9 ¶¶ 17-22. But see ECF No. 41-1 at 31 (Griswold Dep.) (noting that an ambulance was never called in the first place).) Upon receiving a medical examination by an emergency room physician, Lucas was discharged from the hospital and returned to work the next day on light-duty before resuming regular duty the day after. (ECF No. 1-1 at 9 ¶¶ 29-31.) Within approximately two weeks of his return, ICG Beckley employee Keith Goins allegedly threatened Lucas with termination if he and his co-workers did not sign a document presented to them indicating that they were at fault for the incident. (Id. at 11 ¶ 32.) Finally, Lucas alleges that ICG Beckley's employees did not complete an accident or occupational injury report nor did the company submit either of the same to the proper regulatory authorities regarding the incident and Lucas' injuries. (Id. ¶ 33.) Lucas continued to work for ICG Beckley for approximately one-and-a-half years after the incident. (ECF No. 42 at 7 (citing ECF No. 41-1 at 36 (Lucas Dep.)).)

         Lucas originally filed this suit in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, West Virginia, on May 4, 2015, before filing an Amended Complaint (“Complaint”) on August 27, 2015. (See ECF No. 1-1 at 6, 17.) The Complaint asserts four causes of action: (1) deliberate intent against both Defendants in violation of West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii);[3] (2) common law negligence against Arch Coal; (3) “coercion” against the two Defendants; and (4) Plaintiff Barbara Lucas' loss of consortium claim. (See Id. at 13-16.) Lucas seeks relief in the forms compensatory and punitive damages[4] under West Virginia law in addition to attorneys' fees and costs. (Id. at 16.)

         Defendants removed the case to this Court on September 29, 2015, asserting diversity jurisdiction as the basis of removal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. (ECF No. 1 at 2-4.) The pending summary judgment motion was filed on October 17, 2017. (ECF No. 41.) Plaintiffs filed no response. As such, the motion is ripe for adjudication.


         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs motions for summary judgment. This rule provides, in relevant part, that summary judgment should be granted if “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact.” Summary judgment is inappropriate, however, if there exist factual issues that reasonably may be resolved in favor of either party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). “Facts are ‘material' when they might affect the outcome of the case, and a ‘genuine issue' exists when the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” News & Observer Publ. Co. v. Raleigh-Durham Airport Auth., 597 F.3d 570, 576 (4th Cir. 2010). When evaluating such factual issues, the Court must view the evidence “in the light most favorable to the opposing party.” Adickes v. S. H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970).

         The moving party may meet its burden of showing that no genuine issue of fact exists by use of “depositions, answers to interrogatories, answers to requests for admission, and various documents submitted under request for production.” Barwick v. Celotex Corp., 736 F.2d 946, 958 (4th Cir. 1984). Once the moving party has met its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to “make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If a party fails to make a sufficient showing on one element of that party's case, the failure of proof “necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 323. Courts do not automatically grant motions for summary judgment when they are unopposed. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The court “must review the motion, even if unopposed, and determine from what it has before it whether the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.” Robinson v. Wix Filtration Corp. LLC, 599 F.3d 403, 409 n.8 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting Custer v. Pan Am. Life Ins. Co., 12 F.3d 410, 416 (4th Cir. 1993)).


         A. Count I: Deliberate Intention

         Lucas first alleges that Defendants violated West Virginia Code § 23-4-2(d)(2)(ii) by deliberately intending for Lucas to be injured. Generally, employees who are injured at their place of work must seek compensation through the West Virginia Workers' Compensation Act. See W.Va. Code § 23-2-6 (2003); State ex rel. Frazier v. Hrko, 510 S.E.2d 486, 493 n.11 ( W.Va. 1998). This legislation serves the dual purposes of allowing an employee to recover even when he is at fault while immunizing employers from civil litigation. “There is an exception to this immunity, however, when the employee's injury is the result of the employer's ‘deliberate intention' to cause that injury.” Helmick v. Potomac Edison Co., 406 S.E.2d 700, 705 ( W.Va. 1991). The standard for “deliberate intention” as codified by West Virginia law at the time of Lucas' alleged injury provides, in pertinent part, the following:

(2) The immunity from suit provided under this section and under section six-a, article two of this chapter may be lost only if the employer or person against whom liability is asserted acted with “deliberate intention”. This requirement may be satisfied only if:
. . .
(ii) The trier of fact determines, either through specific findings of fact made by the court in a trial without a jury, or through special interrogatories to the jury in a jury trial, that all of the following facts are proven:
(A) That a specific unsafe working condition existed in the workplace which presented a high degree of risk and a strong probability of serious injury or death;
(B) That the employer had a subjective realization and an appreciation of the existence of the specific unsafe working condition and of the high degree of risk and the strong probability of serious injury or death presented by the specific unsafe working condition;
(C) That the specific unsafe working condition was a violation of a state or federal safety statute, rule or regulation, whether cited or not, or of a commonly accepted and well-known safety standard within the industry or business of the employer, which statute, rule, regulation or standard was specifically applicable to the particular work and working condition involved, as contrasted with a statute, rule, regulation or standard generally requiring safe workplaces, equipment or working conditions;
(D) That notwithstanding the existence of the facts set forth in subparagraphs (A) through (C), inclusive, of this paragraph, the employer nevertheless thereafter exposed an employee to the specific unsafe working condition intentionally; and
(E) That the employee exposed suffered serious injury or death as a direct and proximate result of the specific unsafe working condition.

W.Va. Code § 23-4-2(D)(2)(ii) (2003).

         Success on this claim hinges on the existence of evidence proving all five specific requirements enumerated above in subsections (A) through (E). See Keesee v. Gen. Refuse Serv., Inc., 604 S.E.2d 449, 459 ( W.Va. 2004) (citing Syl. pt. 2, Mayles v. Shoney's, Inc., 405 S.E.2d 15 ( W.Va. 1990)).[5] These elements will not be met where there is no evidence that (1) the machine violated any safety standard, (2) the defective condition was obvious, or (3) a past injury arose from it. See Kane v. Corning Glass Works, 331 S.E.2d 807, 809 ( W.Va. 1984); see also Smith v. ACF Indus., Inc., 687 F.2d 40, 43 (4th Cir. 1982); Nedley v. Consolidation Coal Co., 578 F.Supp. 1528, 1532-33 (N.D. W.Va. 1984). Importantly, the statute “does not abrogate immunity for employers who engage in objectively hazardous enterprises such as coal mining or chemical production.” Handley v. Union Carbide Corp., 620 F.Supp. 428, 436 (S.D. W.Va. 1985), aff'd, 804 F.2d 265 (4th Cir. 1986).

         Subparagraph (A) “requires proof by the employee of a specific unsafe working condition which presented a high degree of risk and a strong probability of serious injury or death.” McComas v. ACF Indus., 750 S.E.2d 235, 240 ( W.Va. 2013). The Complaint continuously references “specific unsafe working conditions” in Count I as supporting a claim of deliberate intention. (See ECF No. 1-1 at 13-14 ¶¶ 39-41.) The Complaint is no more specific and does not pinpoint a single condition as required by the statute. See W.Va. Code § 23-4-2(D)(2)(ii)(A). Parsing through the facts alleged in the Complaint, Lucas identifies the failure of the hoist car's brake as the cause of the injury. (See ECF No. 1-1 ...

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