Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Cramer v. Powder River Coal

March 31, 2009

BRETT ALAN CRAMER, APPELLANT (PLAINTIFF),
v.
POWDER RIVER COAL, LLC, A DELAWARE LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY, F/K/A POWDER RIVER COAL COMPANY, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, AND CABALLO COAL COMPANY, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, ACTING THROUGH THEIR AGENTS, OFFICERS, EMPLOYEES AND REPRESENTATIVES, APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS).



Appeal from the District Court of Campbell County, The Honorable Michael N. Deegan, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burke, Justice

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Brett Cramer brought suit against the owner and the operator of the Caballo Mine, seeking to hold them liable for damages he suffered in an accident that occurred while he was working at the mine site. The trial resulted in a jury verdict against Mr. Cramer, and the district court entered judgment against him. Mr. Cramer appeals, claiming that the district court erred in numerous pretrial and trial rulings. We conclude that no reversible errors have been demonstrated, and affirm the judgment entered by the district court.

ISSUES

[¶2] Mr. Cramer presents a list of seven issues for our consideration. To facilitate their discussion, we have placed them in this order:

1. Did the district court err in granting summary judgment and denying a Campen motion regarding punitive damages?

2. Did the district court err in refusing to allow evidence at trial of Defendants‟ policy of not maintaining, preparing, or inspecting mine property for purposes of the safety of visitors?

3. Did the district court err in refusing discovery regarding Defendants‟ policy of not maintaining, preparing, or inspecting mine property for purposes of the safety of visitors?

4. Did the district court err in dismissing Plaintiff‟s claim for damages for violation of duties imposed by contract?

5. Did the district court err in refusing to allow Plaintiff‟s expert to testify at trial regarding the applicable standard of care and Defendants‟ breach of the standard of care?

6. Did the district court err in refusing to allow Plaintiff‟s expert to testify at trial, following a written request from the jury, regarding Defendants‟ violation of MSHA provisions?

7. Did the district court violate the Wyoming Constitution and Wyoming law by applying collateral estoppel to Plaintiff‟s claim of cervical injuries?

FACTS

[¶3] The Caballo Mine is a large surface coal mine located in Wyoming‟s Powder River Basin. It is owned and operated by two affiliated companies, Powder River Coal, LLC, and Caballo Coal Company (collectively "PRC"). On October 18, 2002, Mr. Cramer, an employee of Weld Test Inspection & Service, went to the Caballo Mine to perform ultrasonic testing on a large coal shovel. After some of the tests were finished, the shovel had to be moved to allow Mr. Cramer access to additional parts of the shovel. One PRC employee operated the shovel. Mr. Cramer climbed up a ladder leaned against the shovel so he could tell when the shovel had moved into the correct position. Another PRC employee was on the ground relaying Mr. Cramer‟s signals to the operator. As the shovel rotated, oil leaked out, and the wind blew the oil over Mr. Cramer where he stood on the ladder. He either jumped or fell from the ladder, and was injured.

[¶4] After the accident, a PRC employee offered to call for emergency assistance, but Mr. Cramer declined, saying that he was able to drive his truck. He drove to the hospital, where he received medical treatment for his injuries. Later, he filed a worker‟s compensation claim for his medical expenses. The Workers‟ Safety & Compensation Division awarded benefits to Mr. Cramer for the injuries to his foot and knee, but denied his claim for compensation for his neck injuries on the basis that Mr. Cramer had not proven that they were caused by his workplace accident. That decision was affirmed on appeal. Cramer v. State ex rel. Wyoming Workers' Safety & Comp. Div., 2005 WY 124, 120 P.3d 668 (Wyo. 2005).

[¶5] Mr. Cramer then filed various claims against PRC in the district court. The district court granted a motion to dismiss a claim entitled "Claim for Damages for Violation of Duties Imposed by Statute, Regulation and Contract," ruling that it did not state a viable cause of action. It also dismissed Mr. Cramer‟s claims relating to his neck injuries on the basis that it had previously been determined in the worker‟s compensation case that the injury was not caused by the accident at the mine. Mr. Cramer appeals the dismissal of these two causes of action.

[¶6] Mr. Cramer‟s complaint also included a claim for punitive damages against PRC. In it, he alleged that PRC required all visitors and contractors who entered the mine site to sign a document entitled "PRCC Assumption of Risk -- Release of Liability and Notice of Warning -- Company Warning Visitor that the Premises may be Dangerous and Hazardous." The language of this Release will be detailed below, but in brief, it warned visitors of the possible presence of dangers and hazards, and contained a release of liability and waiver of claims against PRC. Mr. Cramer alleged that the Release violated applicable laws, regulations, and public policy, and that its use by PRC constituted willful and wanton conduct sufficient to warrant the imposition of punitive damages. Mr. Cramer appeals various rulings by the district court relating to this Release and his claim for punitive damages based on it.

[¶7] The case proceeded to trial on claims of negligence. The jury rendered a verdict finding Mr. Cramer 55% at fault, Powder River Coal 25% at fault, and Caballo Coal Company 20% at fault. Because Mr. Cramer was allocated more than 50% of the fault, he was denied recovery pursuant to Wyoming‟s Comparative Fault statute, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-1-109 (LexisNexis 2007). The district court entered judgment in favor of the Defendants. Mr. Cramer appeals several decisions made by the district court on pretrial discovery issues and evidentiary questions that arose during the trial. Additional facts will be discussed as they relate to the individual issues.

DISCUSSION

The Release

[¶8] Three issues relating to the Release are raised in Mr. Cramer‟s appeal. Before considering these individual issues, we begin with an overview of the Release and the proceedings relating to it. PRC required visitors to the mine site to sign the Release. Contractors like Mr. Cramer were considered visitors, and Mr. Cramer had signed a copy of the Release before beginning his work at the mine site. The Release included a provision by which the visitor: waives and releases and (to the extent permitted by Law) agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless [PRC], their agents, and employees from and against any and all claims for injury to any person (including death) or damage to any property (including claims for exemplary damages) and litigation expenses (including reasonable attorney fees) arising from or connected in any way with Visitor‟s occupation or use of the premises.

The Release also contained the following language:

WARNING! CONDITION OF PREMISES: Visitor understands that the area contains active mining operations and numerous hazardous conditions, such as rough and unstable surface, active haulage roads, open pits, blasting, operating heavy equipment and equipment shops, electrical lines and equipment, railroads and rail traffic, coal preparation and handling facilities, rattlesnakes, and other natural and artificial hazards. The Company further warns that they have not maintained, prepared, or inspected the premises for purposes of Visitor. The Company does not represent that the premises are safe or suitable for Visitor‟s presence on the mine property without release of liability and waiver of claims.

[¶9] In his initial complaint, Mr. Cramer alleged that PRC‟s use of the waiver and release to discourage and preclude workers from filing personal injury claims against PRC was illegal and contrary to public policy. He appeared to anticipate that PRC would assert that Mr. Cramer‟s personal injury claims were barred by the Release he had signed. That, he alleged, constituted willful and wanton conduct sufficient to justify a punitive damage claim against PRC.

[¶10] From the outset, however, PRC declined to assert the waiver and release of liability as a defense to Mr. Cramer‟s claims. Because it did not use the Release to discourage or preclude Mr. Cramer from bringing his claims, PRC asserted that it had not engaged in the conduct alleged to be willful and wanton, and on that basis moved to dismiss the punitive damages claim. In conjunction with its motion to dismiss, PRC also filed a motion for protective order, asserting that it was not required to respond to Mr. Cramer‟s discovery requests relating to his punitive damage claim.

[¶11] In response to PRC‟s motions, Mr. Cramer shifted the focus of his punitive damages claim away from the waiver and release of liability, and toward the statement in the Release that "The Company further warns that they have not maintained, prepared, or inspected the premises for purposes of Visitor." He insisted that this statement in the Release represented a written company policy not to maintain the mine site so it was safe for visitors. The existence of this policy, Mr. Cramer asserted, was sufficiently egregious to warrant punitive damages. The district court allowed Mr. Cramer to amend his complaint in an effort to reflect and clarify this new basis for the punitive damages claim.

[¶12] PRC consistently asserted that the Release did not reflect a company policy, but rather a warning that hazards existed on the mine site. When questioned about the form, one PRC representative provided this explanation:

I think it‟s fair to say that when we enter into a contract with someone, we tell them that we are doing, with regard to the premises, that which is required by law; and they do what is required by them by law; and we‟re not undertaking any additional responsibilities. . . . I‟m not sure that "policy" is the right word but [the Release] warns people that come on the property that the area is -- contains active mining operations, and hazards. And I think its intention likely was, when it was drafted, to tell people that we‟re not assuming any additional obligations with regard to you, other than those that are already imposed on us by law.

[ΒΆ13] Throughout pretrial proceedings, the parties sharply disputed the meaning and significance of the Release. Their disagreements were raised before the district court numerous times in the context of discovery disputes and motion hearings. As a result, the district court issued several different rulings and decisions regarding the Release. Because these rulings are interrelated, it can be difficult to separate out for analysis the individual issues ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.