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Van Dorn v. Hunter

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 21, 2019

Edwin Van Dorn Plaintiff - Appellant
Scott Hunter Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: December 11, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Des Moines

          Before LOKEN, MELLOY, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.


         Appellant Edwin Van Dorn worked as an apprentice electrical linesman for PAR Electrical Contractors, Inc. On September 1, 2014, Van Dorn's team was called into duty after high winds knocked over three wooden utility poles. Appellee Scott Hunter led a second team that was also sent to fix the poles.

         A well-known risk of line work is that a downed wire under tension can break free and injure a line worker. To protect against that risk, wires are normally secured with safety ropes. The area encompassing the space where a free wire might cause an injury is referred to as "the bite." Linesmen are taught to stay out of the bite if possible. Linesmen are also instructed to make sure that no fellow employee is in the bite before releasing a wire.

         Van Dorn was severely injured at the worksite when a wire that Hunter's team disconnected from a downed pole snapped free and struck Van Dorn in the face. Hunter had attempted to secure the wire by attaching it to a taped-open winch latch hook of a digger derrick truck, which he believed would be safer than using a safety rope. The winch latch hook failed to restrain the wire, which struck Van Dorn in the face and caused serious injuries. As a result of his injuries, Van Dorn required multiple surgeries and missed a substantial amount of work.

         Van Dorn filed this suit against Hunter, alleging that Hunter was grossly negligent and that this negligence caused Van Dorn substantial harm. The district court[1] granted summary judgment in favor of Hunter, concluding that Iowa's Workers' Compensation Act provided the exclusive remedy because Van Dorn was unable, as a matter of law, to establish gross negligence on the part of Hunter. We affirm.

         I. Background

         On September 1, 2014, high winds downed three consecutive wooden utility poles near Carroll, Iowa. The poles fell across the adjacent roadway with power distribution wires still attached. An overhead ground wire, or static wire, also remained attached to the poles.

         Repair crews were promptly dispatched and arrived on scene. The necessary repairs included removing the wires from the downed poles, setting new poles, and remounting the wires on the new poles. Hunter led a crew that began to work on one of the end poles, while Van Dorn's crew focused on the middle pole. Van Dorn's crew successfully disconnected four wires from the middle pole. Van Dorn's supervisor then sent him to remove arrestors from the middle pole so that they could be reused on a replacement pole.

         Roughly 300 feet away from where Van Dorn was working, Hunter's crew began to detach the static wire from the outer pole. The static wire was under tension. Rather than secure the wire with a safety rope, Hunter made the decision to jerry-rig an improvised wire lip, believing it would be a safer option. A wire lip is a device specifically designed to safely secure a wire under tension. Hunter attached the winch latch hook of a digger derrick to the wire, then taped the latch open in an attempt to have it serve the same function as a wire lip. Hunter had not personally used a winch latch hook to imitate a wire lip before, but had witnessed others use that method and had not observed any accidents. He later stated that he discussed this approach with his crew and that they agreed it would be the best way to secure the wire.

         Hunter's crew used a chainsaw to cut the pole and release the static wire. Hunter testified that he had checked the bite and that he had seen no one in the bite. However, Van Dorn was in the bite removing arrestors from the middle pole. When the wire came free, it pulled out of the winch latch hook and struck Van Dorn across the face and head. Van Dorn suffered serious injuries requiring surgical treatment and a prolonged absence from work.

         On September 1, 2016, Van Dorn filed an action in the Iowa District Court for Polk County. The case was removed to the Southern District of Iowa. The district court granted summary judgment in Hunter's favor, finding gross negligence could not be established under Iowa law because the undisputed evidence in the record demonstrated that Hunter and his crew members were exposed to the same risk of injury and thus Hunter ...

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