Kpiele-Poda v. Patterson-UTI Energy, 2023 OK 11

Opinion:Kpiele-Poda v. Patterson-UTI Energy, 2023 OK 11
Subject Matter:Civil Litigation; Workers Compensation
Date Decided:February 14, 2023
Trial Court:District Court of Oklahoma County; Judge Truong
Route to this Court:Appeal of trial dismissal orders certified for interlocutory appeal; Retained and consolidated by OKSCT.
Facts:Following an injury sustained on June 4, 2018, while repairing a sandbox conveyor, Employee filed a workers’ compensation claim against Universal Pressure Pumping (UPPI) as his employer. UPPI and its insurer paid temporary disability benefits to Employee. On June 2, 2020, two days before the statute of limitations expired for Employee’s claims relating to his injuries, he filed a petition in the District Court of Oklahoma County against UPPI as well as three other alleged employers, Patterson-UTI Energy, Inc., Seventy Seven Operating, LLC, and Performance Technologies, LLC. Ovintiv Mid-Continent, Inc. was mentioned in the general allegations as an operator of the wellsite pursuant to a theory of negligence, but Ovintiv was not listed in the caption of the lawsuit. Before service of the petition and after the statute of limitations had expired, the Employee filed an amended petition adding Ovintiv to the caption. All defendants were served on October 26, 2020. 

Ovintiv moved to dismiss the claims against it, arguing that Employee’s negligence claim was time-barred because Ovintiv was not sued prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations and the Amended Petition adding Ovintiv to the caption did not relate back to the original filing date pursuant to Oklahoma’s relation back statute. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claims against Ovintv. Employee timely appealed.

 The other defendants filed a motion to dismiss the claims arguing that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the intentional tort claims because Employee’s remedy was under the jurisdiction of the Workers’ Compensation Commission. The district court granted the motion to dismiss.  Employee timely appealed.
Standard of Review:The Court reviewed the district court’s grant of dismissal motions de novo. See, e.g., Woods v. Prestwick House, Inc., 2011 OK 9, ¶ 14. The issues before the Court pose questions of statutory interpretation. A statute’s construction and application presents a question of law that is reviewed de novo. Strickland v. Stephens Prod. Co., 2018 OK 6, ¶ 4
Analysis:In response to the first issue, both sides cite to Klopfenstein v. Oklahoma Department of Human Services, 2008 OK CIV APP 16, as supportive of their position. In  Klopfenstein, the Court held that “although the Oklahoma and federal rules of pleading require parties to be named in the caption of a petition, the failure to do so is not necessarily fatal.” Ovintiv argued that while not always fatal, it is in this case because Ovintiv did not get proper notice of the action. The Court rejected that argument citing 12 O.S.Supp.2017, § 2004(I), which requires service to be made 180 days from the date of filing of the original complaint (even if the date of service falls on a date after expiration of the statute of limitations). The Amended Petition adding Ovintiv to the caption was served on September 23, 2020, which was well within the 180-day requirement. Under these circumstances, the Court held that the omission of a party from the caption is not fatal where the party is sufficiently named in the body of the petition.

In addressing the subject matter jurisdiction issue, the primary question was one of statutory interpretation: whether an employee is statutorily entitled to maintain an action for intentional tort in the district court while also pursuing a workers’ compensation claim. The applicable statute is 85A O.S. 2014, §5(I), which states that: “. . . the injured employee or his legal representative may maintain an action either before the commission or in the district court, but not both.” The Court determined that the language in the statute is not ambiguous and its plain reading bars the Employee from simultaneously maintaining identical claims in both the Workers’ Compensation Commission and the district court. The Employee had the choice between seeking a remedy from the Commission or the district court. However, the Employee could not seek remedies from both regardless of the fact that there had been no adjudication of compensability at the Commission and that the Employee was not actively pursuing adjudication at the Commission.
Outcome:District Court affirmed in part, reversed in part.
Vote:5-4; V.C.J. Rowe authored; J. Gurich concurred in part, dissented in part.
Other:Justice Gurich agreed with the majority to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of Ovintiv Mid-Continent but dissented from affirming the trial court’s dismissal of UPPI and the related defendants. J. Gurich focused on the language of Farley v. City of Claremore, 2020 OK 30, ¶ 30, in which the court held that “preclusive effect of a final adjudication includes a final determination before the Workers’ Compensation Commission. This final adjudication includes a determination that an injury is compensable because it resulted from an accident.” In this case, Employee did not actively pursue adjudication, and had requested to hold the case in abeyance so that Employee would have an opportunity to seek a remedy from the district court. J. Gurich argued that the Employee should be allowed to file a claim in both the Commission and the district court and preserve both until one claim is fully adjudicated.