Hennepin County District Court File No. 02-415.
Considered and decided by Wright, Presiding Judge; Randall, Judge; and Kalitowski, Judge.
1. When an employee undertakes direct action to assist a co-employee with a workplace injury, that employee acquires a personal duty to exercise proper care.
2. When a co-employee has a personal duty to exercise proper care in the treatment of a workplace injury and provides more than scant care that does not entirely disregard the consequences of the injury, the co-employee is entitled to summary judgment in an action for gross negligence under the workers' compensation act.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wright, Judge
Appellants brought a wrongful-death action against co-employees of the deceased. The district court granted summary judgment based on co-employee immunity under the workers' compensation act. Arguing that respondents (1) owed a personal duty to the deceased and (2) were grossly negligent in breach of that duty, appellants contend that summary judgment was erroneously granted because there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether an exemption to co-employee immunity applies. We affirm.
Korey Stringer, a professional football player with the Minnesota Vikings, died of complications from heat stroke on August 1, 2001. Appellant Kelci Stringer and other survivors brought this wrongful-death action in February 2002. The defendants included several employees of the Minnesota Vikings: head trainer Charles Barta, assistant trainer Paul Osterman, and coordinator of medical services Fred Zamberletti (collectively respondents).*fn1
Stringer reported to training camp on July 29, 2001. On the first day of training camp, July 30, Stringer complained of bouts of stomachache. Late that afternoon, Stringer started vomiting during practice. A coach called Barta and asked him to assist Stringer. While on the field with Barta, Stringer vomited two more times. Barta then escorted Stringer to an air-conditioned first-aid trailer.
Inside the trailer, Osterman and Zamberletti were assisting other players. Barta told Zamberletti that Stringer was vomiting and needed to cool down. Barta then retrieved Dr. William Knowles, a training-camp physician. By the time Dr. Knowles arrived, Stringer had received water and was not exhibiting ill effects. According to Dr. Knowles's notes, Stringer suffered an "episode of heat exhaustion" but "recovered without incident following rest and hydration." That evening Barta supplied Stringer with two bottles of Gatorade to assist in rehydration.
Severe heat and humidity were predicted for morning practice on July 31. As part of the daily training-camp routine, all players were weighed before and after practice. Barta examined Stringer's weight chart, comparing Stringer's weight from the prior afternoon to his weight that morning. Barta did not note any extraordinary changes. As a result, Barta allowed Stringer to participate fully in morning practice.
At approximately 10:30 a.m., Stringer vomited again but continued to participate in practice. While working out on a large blocking dummy, Stringer dropped to one knee. Osterman checked on Stringer, who refused assistance. Shortly thereafter, Stringer lay down on the practice field. Osterman and another trainer were called to assist Stringer. Stringer got up and struck the blocking dummy once more; then Osterman escorted Stringer to the first-aid trailer.
Osterman and Stringer entered the trailer at approximately 11:20 a.m. Osterman gave Stringer water, and he took a few sips. Stringer lay down on the floor of the trailer at some point later. Approximately five to ten minutes after they had entered, Stringer asked Osterman to remove his shoes and ankle tape. As Osterman did so, he observed that Stringer was sweating and his skin was moist. Stringer thanked Osterman for his assistance. Osterman then gave Stringer iced towels to cool down. Stringer moved to an examination table for a few minutes, where he was observed humming and bobbing his head. Later he moved back to the floor. Osterman did not find this behavior unusual.
Another trainer arrived with a cart to transport Stringer back to the camp dormitory. But by that time, Stringer was unresponsive. Osterman instructed the other trainer to retrieve Zamberletti. While Osterman waited for Zamberletti to arrive, he took Stringer's pulse, which was "steady but weak."
When Zamberletti arrived, he saw Stringer breathing rapidly and concluded that Stringer was hyperventilating. To treat this condition, Zamberletti instructed another trainer to place a plastic bag around Stringer's mouth for 45 to 60 seconds. Zamberletti took Stringer's pulse and felt that Stringer's skin was cool and sweaty. ...