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Suzor v. International Paper Co.

Supreme Court of Montana

December 27, 2016

CHARLOTTE SUZOR, Plaintiff, Appellant and Cross-Appellee,

          Submitted on Briefs: October 12, 2016

         District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, In and For the County of Missoula, Cause No. DV 10-1115 Honorable Robert L. Deschamps, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Rex Palmer, Attorneys Inc., P.C., Missoula, Montana

          For Appellees: Gerry Fagan, Moulton Bellingham PC, Billings, Montana


          Patricia Cotter, Justice

         ¶1 Charlotte Suzor injured her knees in a workplace accident in 1982, and her knees have been prone to giving out unpredictably ever since. She settled her workers' compensation claims in 1987 with her self-insured employer, Champion International Corporation, but reserved the right to seek future medical benefits for ongoing complications from her injury. In 2009, Suzor fell and broke her hip after her knees gave out. Her physician filed a claim with Sedgwick Claims Management Services, Inc. (Sedgwick), the third-party administrator for the workers' compensation plan now funded by her employer's successor in interest, International Paper Company. Sedgwick initially denied the claim, leading Suzor to sue International Paper Company, Sedgwick, and two of Sedgwick's employees (collectively, the "Appellees") for bad faith and breach of fiduciary duty. Following a jury trial in the Fourth Judicial District Court, Missoula County, judgment was entered in favor of the Appellees. Suzor timely appealed. We affirm.


         ¶2 We address the following issues on appeal:

         1. Did the Appellees owe Suzor a fiduciary duty?

         2. Did the District Court abuse its discretion in denying Suzor's jury instruction on causation?

         3. Was the mistaken association of the wrong juror questionnaire with a juror a structural error that necessitates a new trial?

         4. Is the jury's award of no damages supported by sufficient evidence?

         5. Did the District Court abuse its discretion in its award of attorney's fees?


         ¶3 In 1982, Suzor injured her knees while working for Champion International. At the time of her injury, Champion International self-insured its workers' compensation liability. Suzor eventually settled her workers' compensation claim, reserving the right to be reimbursed for all medical treatment that would result from her injury. At some point after her injury, International Paper bought Champion International and assumed its outstanding workers' compensation obligations. International Paper contracted with Sedgwick to handle workers' compensation claims as a third-party administrator.

          ¶4 In the spring of 2009, Suzor fell and fractured her hip while getting into her pickup truck. According to her orthopedist, Dr. Michael Woods, the patellectomy Suzor underwent to treat her prior injury had made her knees unstable, and that instability was the cause of the fall that broke her hip. Under the terms of her workers' compensation settlement, Suzor was entitled to medical benefits for the broken hip, as it was a consequence of her workplace injury.

         ¶5 Suzor made an appointment with Dr. Woods for April 23, 2009. The day after her appointment, Woods initiated a worker's compensation claim by requesting authorization for an MRI. Cindy Berglind-Grooms, a claims adjustor at Sedgwick, fielded the request and denied it the same day. Suzor visited Dr. Woods again on May 4, and Dr. Woods sent his notes from that appointment to Sedgwick to substantiate the claim. Sedgwick again denied the claim, concluding that it was "not related to the original claim."

         ¶6 Suzor met with Dr. Woods again on May 18. At that appointment, Suzor indicated the pain medication Dr. Woods had prescribed was working. Suzor and Dr. Woods chose to wait and see how the hip would heal, and scheduled another appointment to reevaluate her progress in June. According to Dr. Woods' notes from the June appointment, Suzor and Dr. Woods decided to give the hip another month of healing without surgery, even though Suzor was feeling worse. Suzor met with Dr. Woods once more on July 9, 2009, and the treatment notes from that appointment indicate Suzor and Dr. Woods decided to pursue surgery instead of waiting for the hip to heal.

         ¶7 By August, Suzor had hired an attorney who wrote to Berglind-Grooms, asking her to reconsider the denial. On August 19, Sedgwick accepted the claim. The next day, Suzor underwent a pre-operative physical to prepare for hip surgery. Although the surgery was scheduled for August 26, Suzor postponed the operation due to a family emergency. On September 16, 2009, Suzor underwent surgery for her broken hip, and Sedgwick approved payment for all of Suzor's visits with Dr. Woods, and for the surgery.

         ¶8 Suzor filed suit on August 18, 2010, to recover damages for the Appellees' alleged breach of a fiduciary duty and bad faith. Suzor claimed that the initial denial of her medical benefits resulted in months of pain and suffering while she waited for Sedgwick to approve her surgery. Suzor joined as defendants Sedgwick, International Paper, Berglind-Grooms, and Dorothy Scott, a claims adjuster and Berglind-Grooms' supervisor at Sedgwick.

         ¶9 During discovery, Suzor requested production of contracts among Sedgwick, International Paper and Champion International, as well as financial and tax information from each defendant. When the Appellees objected to production of the requested documents, Suzor filed a motion to compel discovery. On April 17, 2014, the District Court granted the motion in part and ordered the Appellees to turn over the requested contracts, but denied without prejudice Suzor's demand for tax and ...

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