Counsel for Estate of Worker Killed in Plane Crash Sanctioned for Pursuing Court Action Against Employer

Following a tropical storm, two employees of a solar power plant flew over the sight in one of the employee’s single-engine aircraft to survey the damage from the storm.  The plane crashed and one of the workers died.  That worker’s Estate brought claims of negligence, negligent hiring, wrongful death under a theory of negligence, and wrongful death under a theory of negligent hiring against the worker’s employer under California law.  The employer claimed that the action was barred because California’s Workers’ Compensation Act provided the worker’s Estate with its exclusive remedy.

At a settlement conference while the workers’ compensation case was pending before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, the worker’s wife signed a Stipulation With Request for Award agreeing that the decedent “while employed at [ ] as a civil project supervisor by [the employer] . . . sustained injury arising out of and occurring in the course of his employment, proximately resulting in the death of said employee . . .”

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California concluded that the Estate was judicially estopped from pursuing the court case.  The Estate challenged the estoppel argument on the grounds that it received new information following the time of the workers’ compensation settlement after learning that the airplane did not have liability insurance, but the Court indicated that those facts were known or should have been known at the time of the workers’ compensation settlement.  Judicial estoppel was appropriate because the Estate was asserting a position clearly inconsistent with the earlier position, the Estate had successful advanced that previous position, and allowing the Estate to assert the inconsistent claims now would result in prejudice.

The Court took its ruling another step by also imposing Rule 11 sanctions on the Estate’s counsel.  The Court explained, “The Court has reviewed the entire record in this case and finds that had [the Estate’s] counsel did not have a non-frivolous basis for opposing the Motion [for Summary Judgment], counsel failed to supply any evidence that would invalidate the [workers’ compensation] stipulation, and counsel knew this case should be dismissed in September of 2015.”  The Court ordered that the Estate’s counsel will pay the employer’s legal bills from September 2015 to the present.


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