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Janvrin v. Continental Resources, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 20, 2019

Jerry Janvrin, doing business as J&J Trucking Plaintiff - Appellee
Continental Resources, Inc., an Oklahoma corporation Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: June 13, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Sioux Falls

          Before WOLLMAN, ARNOLD, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.

         A jury determined that Continental Resources, Inc. (Continental), had tortiously interfered with the business relationship between Jerry Janvrin and CTAP, LLC (CTAP). Continental appeals, challenging the sufficiency of evidence at trial, the amount of damages awarded, and the district court's[1] instruction to the jury regarding improper interference. We affirm.


         At the time of trial in January 2017, Jerry Janvrin was a hired hand and overseer of unit operations at the Jim Clarkson ranch some seventeen miles north of Buffalo, Harding County, South Dakota, where he also raised sheep. In years past, he had done aerial depredation work exterminating coyotes and fox under a county-funded, state-sponsored depredation program in addition to his work as a ranch hand. He learned about the oil business from others knowledgeable in the industry and in 2010 organized J&J Trucking to haul materials for oil equipment suppliers on an as-needed basis. Roughly 96% of J&J's income came from CTAP, an equipment supplier having several supply terminals, including one in Bowman, North Dakota, in the Bakken region, which comprises South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and parts of southern Canada.

         Janvrin himself did not hold a commercial drivers license, and so as an independent contractor he employed others to drive the trucks for J&J Trucking. He testified that most of those he hired, some 29 in total, were local ranchers, attesting to their reliability and punctuality in meeting their schedules. He also acknowledged on cross-examination that he had fired one of his drivers after receiving a complaint about her from CTAP, saying, "I had a mandatory three strikes and you are out, and the third time that happened it was done for," referring to other documented circumstances regarding that driver.

         Continental, a top-10 oil producer in the United States and the largest leaseholder in the Bakken region, was CTAP's largest customer in that region from 2010 to 2014.[2] It accounted for roughly 60% of CTAP's business from the Bowman terminal, which served Continental's "Buffalo District," located in the northwest part of Harding County. Gordon Carlson supervises this district from Continental's field office in Harding County, which is located on South Hills Cave Road, a paved road surrounded by open range where local ranchers graze their animals. Although Janvrin's company hauled almost exclusively out of the Bowman terminal, less than 1% of Janvrin's work for CTAP involved hauling to the Buffalo District.

         During a February 2014 blizzard, a Continental pick-up truck driver struck and killed two cows belonging to Janvrin's relatives that were standing on South Hills Cave Road. His relatives told Janvrin about the accident and contacted the local newspaper. Janvrin testified that, concerned that many drivers were going too fast for the rural road conditions and recalling that he had lost several sheep on that road in the past, he also called the local newspaper, which published an article about the cow-truck collision and paraphrased his remarks.

         Though Janvrin's comments made no mention of Continental or its drivers, Carlson read the article and thought Janvrin was "biting the hand that feeds him" by "pointing the finger at Continental as the cause of the accident." Carlson testified that because of the "disrespectful" comments and because of previous incidents in which Janvrin allegedly visited Continental's well locations without proper safety equipment, Carlson contacted his superiors to request that Janvrin no longer haul materials to Continental's Buffalo District sites. He spoke with the senior engineer in charge of the Buffalo District, who in turn spoke with Ollis Anderson, Continental's Director of Supply Chain Management, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, purportedly to ask that Continental prohibit Janvrin from delivering to its well locations in the Buffalo District.

         Director Anderson called Michael "Stoney" McCarrell, Senior Vice-President of Operations at CTAP's headquarters in Lafayette, Colorado. The two had a longstanding professional relationship and had gone hunting in the past. Shortly after the call, McCarrell spoke to Ron Spidahl, the supervisor responsible for assigning independent drivers to CTAP's deliveries from the Bowman terminal. McCarrell asked if Spidahl would have enough trucks for deliveries if they removed Janvrin from their "lineup" of drivers. After Spidahl affirmed that they would, McCarrell responded, "We are not going to use [Janvrin] anymore. [He is] not going to haul for me." Spidahl asked why, and McCarrell replied, "It doesn't make a difference what happened. When I get a call from the big guy-." Spidahl understood "big guy" to mean Ollis Anderson, and thereafter called Janvrin to inform him that he had been removed from the Bowman terminal lineup. Janvrin testified that he received the call on the evening of February 19, 2014, hours after his published remarks in the local newspaper had been distributed.

         Carlson testified that he learned about CTAP's decision to completely remove Janvrin from its lineup approximately one week later. Director Anderson testified that, upon his inquiry in a later phone call, Senior Vice President McCarrell confirmed that Janvrin was no longer hauling from the Bowman terminal. Anderson testified that he had not asked McCarrell to return Janvrin to the lineup. Around that time, a Continental employee told one of Janvrin's truckers-a former Continental employee-that he had overheard Carlson bragging that he had shut down a trucking firm.

         Janvrin filed a tortious interference claim in state court, alleging that Continental had induced or otherwise pressured CTAP to end its business relationship with J&J in retaliation for Janvrin's newspaper comment. Continental removed the case to federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 1441(a). The case proceeded to trial, at which the district court instructed the jury that Continental had the right to refuse to do business with Janvrin, but that it could not interfere with Janvrin and CTAP's business relationship. The jury returned a verdict for Janvrin, awarding him $123, 669 in ...

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