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Odom v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., L.P.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

June 19, 2018

PERRY ODOM, and CAROLYN ODOM, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
v.
PENSKE TRUCK LEASING CO., L.P., Defendant-Appellee, and HENDRICKSON USA, LLC, Defendant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA (D.C. NO. 5:16-CV-00442-W)

          Daniel E. Bryan III, Lane M. Clausen with him on the briefs, Hornbeek Vitali & Braun P.L.L.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellants.

          L. Earl Ogletree, Cameron R. Capps with him on the brief, Wiggins Sewell & Ogletree, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Appellee.

          Before TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge, HARTZ, and HOLMES, Circuit Judges.

          TYMKOVICH, Chief Judge.

         This appeal concerns the scope of Oklahoma's recently modified workers' compensation regime. Perry Odom suffered serious injuries when a semi-trailer collapsed on him at work. His employer—Penske Logistics—did not own the trailer, but his employer's sole stockholder—Penske Truck Leasing—did. Odom and his wife sought to recover from Penske Truck Leasing through a personal injury action in federal court. The district court dismissed their complaint, reasoning Oklahoma's workers' compensation scheme as applied here shielded an employer's stockholders from employee claims arising out of a workplace injury.

         The Odoms appealed, challenging the district court's interpretation of the Oklahoma statute. We certified the interpretive question to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. We have received an answer making it clear the district court applied an incorrect legal standard in dismissing this case. We therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background

         At this stage of the proceedings, we assume the truth of the facts alleged in the Odoms' complaint.

         Perry Odom worked for Penske Logistics in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. On July 27, 2015, Odom suffered life-threatening injuries when a trailer equipped with an air suspension system collapsed on him, striking his head. In addition to pursuing relief from the Oklahoma Workers' Compensation Commission, Odom and his wife filed this diversity action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. As relevant here, the Odoms alleged the trailer's owner, Penske Truck Leasing Co., L.P., negligently inspected, tested, repaired, serviced and maintained the trailer, and then failed to preserve evidence critical to this action.

         As it turns out, however, Penske Truck Leasing also owned Odom's employer, Penske Logistics, as a corporate subsidiary. On this basis alone, Penske Truck Leasing moved to dismiss the Odoms' action for failure to state a claim. It argued the exclusive-remedy provision of Oklahoma's workers' compensation statute barred civil suits against it based on workplace injuries suffered by Penske Logistics employees.

         The district court granted the motion. It read the Oklahoma statute to immunize both employers and their stockholders from liability for work-related negligence. As a result, the court agreed dismissal was in order so long as Penske Truck Leasing could prove an ownership interest in Penske Logistics. In subsequent briefing, Penske Truck Leasing offered an employee affidavit and a corporate data sheet both establishing that fact. The Odoms did not refute this evidence, and have not challenged it here. Accordingly, the district court dismissed the case.

         The Odoms appealed. Uncertainty over the proper interpretation of the statute led us to solicit the view of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. See Odom v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 704 Fed.Appx. 780 (10th Cir. 2017) (unpublished); see 10th Cir. R. 27.2(A)(1); see also Okla. Stat. tit. 20, § 1602 (granting the power to answer certified questions). We asked whether the statute's "exclusive-remedy provision bar[s] an employee from [suing] a stockholder of his employer" in tort, "even if . . . liability would arise from duties independent of the employment relationship." Odom, 704 Fed.Appx. at 782. The Oklahoma Supreme Court accepted our certified question and issued an opinion answering it. See Odom v. Penske Truck Leasing Co., 415 P.3d 521 (Okla. 2018). Applying that answer, we now decide the Odoms' appeal.

         II. ...


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