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Afoa v. China Airlines Ltd.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

July 11, 2019

BRANDON APELA AFOA, Plaintiff,
v.
CHINA AIRLINES LTD, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          JOHN C. COUGHENOUR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's motion to vacate judgment and reopen case (Dkt. No. 190). Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby DENIES the motion for the reasons stated herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was paralyzed while working for Evergreen Aviation Ground Logistics Enterprises, Inc., (“EAGLE”), a company that provided ground services at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (“SeaTac Airport”) to Defendants China Airlines (“China”), Hawaiian Airlines (“Hawaiian”), Eva Airways (“Eva”), and British Airways (“British”) (collectively the “Airline Defendants”). (Dkt. No. 26 at 2-5.) On December 26, 2007, Plaintiff was driving a “pushback” at SeaTac Airport when the vehicle's brakes and steering failed causing Plaintiff to collide with a cargo loading machine, which collapsed on him. (Id. at 8.)

         Plaintiff initially filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the Port of Seattle (the “Port”), which owns SeaTac Airport. (Dkt. No. 105 at 2.) The superior court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against the Port on summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed, and the Washington State Supreme Court ultimately held that the trial court's grant of summary judgment was erroneous and remanded the case for further proceedings. See Afoa v. Port of Seattle, 296 P.3d 800 (Wash. 2013) (Afoa I).

         After the superior court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against the Port, and shortly before the three-year statute of limitations for tort actions ran, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the Airline Defendants and the manufacturers of the pushback and the cargo loader involved in his accident. (Dkt. No. 105 at 2-3.)[1] Plaintiff alleged three theories of negligence against the Airline Defendants: (1) breach of duties under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act of 1973 (“WISHA claim”); (2) breach of duties under the common law retained-control doctrine (“retained control claim”); and (3) breach of duties owed to an invitee on premises by a possessor of land (“premises liability claim”). (Dkt. No. 117 at 7-10.)[2]

         Defendants timely removed the case to this Court, and the Court stayed all proceedings pending the Washington State Supreme Court's resolution of Plaintiff's appeal in Afoa I. (Dkt. No. 77.) After the Washington State Supreme Court issued its opinion in Afoa I, this Court lifted its stay, and the Airline Defendants each moved to dismiss Plaintiff's second amended complaint on the pleadings. (Dkt. Nos. 24, 34, 74.) The Court granted the Airline Defendants' motions to dismiss Plaintiff's premises liability claim, but gave Plaintiff leave to amend. (Dkt. No. 117 at 10) (“[T]he complaint fails to provide any factual allegation sufficient to support Plaintiff's claim that any of the Airline Defendants possessed the premises on which he was injured.”) The Court denied Hawaiian and China's motions to dismiss Plaintiff's retained control claim and WISHA claim, ruling that Plaintiff alleged facts demonstrating that “Hawaiian Airlines and China Airlines retained control over his work and [were] potentially liable for his injuries because he was working for them when he was injured.” (Id. at 7, 9.)

         Conversely, the Court granted Eva and British's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's retained control claim and WISHA claim ruling that “at the time [Plaintiff] was injured he was doing work for Hawaiian Airlines and China Airlines, not for Eva Airways or British Airways.” (Id. at 7-8.) The Court reasoned that:

[I]t would be illogical to conclude that either Eva or British owed Plaintiff any duty to provide him with a safe workplace at the time he was injured. Although an employer can be liable for injuries to an independent contractor's employee, the employer is not liable when the injured employee is performing work on another contract.

(Id. at 8.) In making its ruling, the Court cited to the same legal authority that the Washington State Supreme Court applied in Afoa I when assessing the Port's liability under a retained-control theory of negligence. (Id.) (citing Kamla v. Space Needle Corp., 52 P.3d 472, 476 (Wash. 2002)) (rejecting defendant's argument that Washington law required actual control as opposed to “retention of the right to direct the manner in which the work is performed”); see Afoa I, 296 P.3d at 810 (noting that Kamla established that “if a jobsite owner . . . retained the right to control work, it could be liable under a common law safe workplace theory.”).

         After Plaintiff amended his complaint, the Airline Defendants filed motions for summary judgment on Plaintiff's remaining claims. (Dkt. Nos. 150, 153, 154, 158.) The Court granted summary judgment on Plaintiff's premises liability claim as to all Defendants, ruling that the evidence demonstrated that “no defendant had ownership or control over the area” where “the accident occurred.” (Dkt. No. 173 at 5-6.) The Court granted summary judgment on Plaintiff's WISHA claim as to Hawaiian and China because Plaintiff had “not even identified what regulations were violated, much less identified relevant actions on the part of Defendants or suggested what facts could be uncovered that would further the unidentified claims.” (Id. at 7.)

         The Court also granted summary judgment to China on Plaintiff's retained control claim because China presented testimony that it “had no authority over or involvement with Plaintiff driving the tug/pushback, ” and Plaintiff did not produce any contradictory evidence. (Id. at 8.) Conversely, the Court initially denied Hawaiian's motion for summary judgment because the motion relied on a declaration from a witness that had not been identified in Hawaiian's initial disclosures. (Id.) Hawaiian subsequently filed a second motion for summary judgment, asserting that Plaintiff “was not working for Hawaiian at the time of his accident, ” and that Hawaiian “in no way had authority over or supervised the plaintiff in any way with respect to him driving the tug/pushback.” (Dkt. No. 174 at 10, 13.) In response to Hawaiian's second motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff stated that he was “now certain that Hawaiian Airlines, China Air, Eva Air, and British Air are not responsible for the loss, that the Port of Seattle is and always has been responsible for the loss, and [he] therefore does not oppose the dismissal of claims against Hawaiian Airlines.” (Dkt. No. 176 at 6-7.)

         Based on the evidence presented by Hawaiian, and Plaintiff's concession, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's remaining retained control claim against Hawaiian. (Dkt. No. 177 at 1) (“Having conducted further discovery, Plaintiff now confirms that Defendant Hawaiian Airlines was not responsible for his loss, and he does not oppose the dismissal of claims against it.”). Plaintiff neither moved for reconsideration of nor appealed any of the Court's orders dismissing his claims against the Airline Defendants.

         Following the Court's entry of final judgment, the Port amended its complaint in the state court action to allege that the Airline Defendants were at fault for Plaintiff's injuries. (Dkt. No. 198 at 9-10.) Plaintiff moved for summary judgment on the Port's proposed “empty chair” defenses, arguing that this Court's dismissal of Plaintiff's claims against the Airline Defendants precluded the Port from seeking to hold them liable. (Id. at 13-36.) The superior court denied Plaintiff's motion, and allowed the Port to present empty chair defenses against the Airline Defendants at trial. (Id. at 38-40.) Following a five-week trial, a jury ...


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