Thursday, October 29, 2015
A Tennessee court granted Mother and Father's divorce in 2000. Because Mother's was found to have a drug problem and was not visiting or contacting the children, the court denied Mother access to the children until she successfully demonstrated she was drug-free.
Nine months later, Father filed a petition to terminate Mother's parental rights. Father listed in that petition the formal marital home as Mother's address even though Father knew the court had divested Mother of any right or interest in the house in the divorce judgment and Father, who resided in the home, knew Mother did not. Unable (predictably) to accomplish personal service, Father served Mother by publication, however, Father did not follow Tennessee's statutory requirements for such service. Mother did not answer or appear and the trial court granted Father's motion for default judgment terminating Mother's parental rights.
In 2010, almost nine years later, Mother filed a motion to set aside the default judgment. She asked the court to find the default judgment void for lack of personal jurisdiction. The trial court determined that Father knew Mother did not reside at the marital residence when summons issued and made no attempt to locate Mother before resorting to service by publication. The trial court set aside the default judgment and the intermediate appellate court affirmed the judgment. The Supreme Court of Tennessee granted Father's permission to appeal.
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Courts have regularly held that flying or tossed baseballs and broken bats entering the spectator area during competition are an inherent risk of the sport. Where spectators have been injured by such objects during competition, courts in subsequent litigation usually employ a limited duty rule applied to the ballpark operator. E.g., Edward C. v. City of Albuquerque, 241 P.3d 1086 (N.M. 2010) (deciding that "a spectator must exercise ordinary care to protect himself or herself from the inherent risk of being hit by a projectile that leaves the field of play and the owner/occupant must exercise ordinary care not to increase that inherent risk").
But what about flying hot dogs? A spectator at a Kansas City Royals baseball game alleged he sustained injuries to his eye when he was struck by a flying hot dog tossed by the Royals' mascot during a promotion. The jury found for the Royals, but yesterday, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed citing jury instruction error and remanded the case for a new trial. That court held:
In the past, this Court has held that spectators cannot sue a baseball team for injuries caused when a ball or bat enters the stands. Such risks are an unavoidable – even desirable – part of the joy that comes with being close enough to the Great American Pastime to smell the new-mown grass, to hear the crack of 42 inches of solid ash meeting a 95-mph fastball, or to watch a diving third baseman turn a heart-rending triple into a soul-soaring double-play. The risk of being injured by Sluggerrr’s hotdog toss, on the other hand, is not an unavoidable part of watching the Royals play baseball. That risk is no more inherent in watching a game of baseball than it is inherent in watching a rock concert, a monster truck rally, or any other assemblage where free food or T-shirts are tossed into the crowd to increase excitement and boost attendance.
Accordingly, Coomer’s claim is not foreclosed by the assumption of the risk doctrine.
The case is Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., No. SC-93214 (Mo., June 24, 2014).
Monday, February 24, 2014
The son of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson can keep profits from the only two known photographs of his father, the Mississippi supreme court ruled Thursday.
Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 in depression-era Mississippi having lived his brief adult life as an itinerant Delta bluesman. In his life he only recorded 29 songs, and there are only two known photographs of him in existance. He died before he turned 30 and the exact location of his grave is unknown (though there are three markers for him -- one in Morgan City MS, one in Quito MS, and one north of Greenwood MS). After his death, Johnson became one of the most influential guitarists in music history --- in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson 5th among the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
The case is Aynne Anderson v. Stephen C. Lavere, No. 2012-CA-00601-SCT (Miss., February 20, 2012). Mississippi courts had previously declared Robert Johnson's son, Claud Johnson, to be his sole heir in 1998. This case turns on the relevant federal and state statute of limitations' application to the facts. The case is interesting not only for its historical significance to music fans, but also as illustrating how testimony in once case case turn fatal in a subsequent claim.
According to the case, Plaintiffs Anderson, et al., initially believed they were the heirs to the Robert Johnson Estate -- Johnson died intestate in 1938 and left no estate of value, or so anyone then thought. Plaintiffs opened Johnson's estate in 1989 believing themselves to be the bluesman's only heirs. During the proceedings, they testified under oath that the recordings and two photographs were the Johnson Estate's property. However, Mississippi courts ultimately found Claud Johnson to be Robert Johnson's only heir.
In this subsequent litigation over rights to the two photographs, Plaintiffs' asserted the those same photographs belonged to them personally. The court wrote:
Also, we note that during the [prior] heirship proceedings, Anderson and Harris did not claim the photographs belonged to Thompson. Rather, they claimed the photographs were assets of the Johnson estate. They assert that they did not bring a separate action because they thought they were the only heirs to the Johnson estate, and thus they were entitled to the photographs as Johnson’s heirs. So, only after losing the estate case did Anderson and Harris bring a separate action claiming that Thompson – and not the estate – owned the photographs. This strategy cannot serve to toll the statute of limitations.
A collection of Robert Johnson's recordings, "The Complete Recordings" won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Historical Album.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
A plan to shrink the state Supreme Court by two justices was praised Monday by some as a money-saver and criticized by others as payback for decisions some legislators don’t like.
The proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, would cut the nine-member court to seven. It moved out of the Senate Law and Justice Committee on Monday on a voice vote, giving it a chance for a vote by the full Senate in the coming weeks.
The article suggests this proposal has picked up steam in the legislature following a recent high court decision ordering the Legislature to spend more money on public schools.
The legislature notes that more populus states California and New York get by with seven high court justices. On the other end of that spectrum, Texas leads the nation with 18 high court judges, with there being two high courts (one civil, one criminal) with nine judges each.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Reversing 24-year old precedent, the Alabama Supreme Court held earlier this month that Alabama law does not authorize courts to order parents to pay postminority educational expenses. The case is Ex Parte Christopher, No. 1120386 (Ala. October 4, 2013).
In Ex Parte Bayliss, 550 So.2d 986 (Ala. 1989), the court interpreted an Alabama statute to allow a divorce court to order a noncustodial parent to pay a child's college expenses. The statute reads:
Upon granting a divorce, the court may give the custody and education of the children of the marriage to either father or mother, as may seem right and proper...
Christopher turned on the meaning of "children of the marriage" and the court's obligation to follow stare decisis. The court looked to the common law and dictionary definitions of "children," which is not a defined term in the statute, to conclude the phrase refers to minors. The court noted that interpreting the term "children" to include adults would lead to the "absurd and unjust" result of court "assign[ing] custody of the adult children of a marriage to one of the divorcing parties."
Regarding stare decisis, the court wrote:
By departing from settled precedent on the meaing of the term "children" in [the statute] and expressly overturing eight cases that conformed to that precedent, the Bayliss court indeed "unsettled" the law. The question arises whether we are bound by the principle of stare decisis to follow Bayliss, even though that opinion itself repudiated that principle. We are not so constrained.
The majority determined that the court erred in Bayliss and the court had an obligation to correct the error.
Two justices dissented in separate opinions in a lengthy decision including six opinions and 74 pages. One dissenting justice, citing the acquiescence principle, observed that in the 24 subsequent years, the Alabama legislature had not statitutorily overturned Bayliss. The justice finds this fact to be an instructive interpretive benchmark.
The states are divided on this issue with some providing no discretion for courts to order parents to support or educate nonminority children, e.g., Curtis v. Kline, 666 A.2d 265 (Pa. 1995) (no duty to support postminority children), others providing for the duty to pay educational expenses to age 21, e.g., Utah Code Ann. sec. 15-2-1, and still others giving courts authority to do so without regard to age, e.g., Donarski v. Donarski, 581 N.W.2d 130 (N.D. 1998) (postminority support is limited and based upon case circumstances).
Friday, October 4, 2013
Law Review symposia are typically planned months in advance and occasionally a law review's topic will prove later to have been fortuitously timed. This year, Wayne Law Review has had just such luck with their symposium next week (October 11), "A Wave of Change: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Michigan’s Constitution and the Evolution of State Constitutionalism."
As readers likely well know, the City of Detroit filed bankruptcy this summer and this filing has raised assorted questions regarding the city and state's consitutional duties and obligations, particularly relating to pension obligations. The Wayne symposium will be much broader than the Detroit bankruptcy issue, of course, but it goes without saying that now is as good as time as any to be hosting such a conference.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
The New Jersey Supreme Court issued an important just compensation decision yesterday in Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan, No. 070512 (N.J., July 8, 2013).
In this case, the borough condemned part of the Karan's beachfront residential property to construct 22-foot high dunes to serve as a barrier against storm tides. All parties agreed that the Karans' were entitled to just compensation - the case turned on what evidence should be admitted in determining that just compensation.
At trial, the court allowed the Karans' evidence relating to lost value due to the dunes obstructing their "oceanfront vista." The trial court denied, however, the borough's evidence relating to the enhanced value for the Karans' property attributed to the added storm protection afforded by the dunes. In the trial court's view, the storm protection constituted a general benefit. The issue before the court was whether or not the cost incurred by the Karans, the part taken plus damages to the remainder, should be offset to the benefit the Karans might receive from dune project.
The Supreme Court reversed the trial court. The court rejected the 19th century general benefits/special benefits dichotomy to hold that "just compensation should be based on non-conjectural and quantifiable benefits, benefits that are capable of reasonable calculation at the time of the taking." The trial court erred, according to the opinion, but allowing the jury to hear evidence relating to the lost value due to the dunes, but not evidence relating to increased storm protection that would potentially enhance value.
This opinion, issued unanimously, is a lengthy and detailed one and includes some history about just compensation law and the general damages/special damages rule. We cover this issue in my Damages course so I will be incorpating either this case or the concepts this fall semester.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
The North Dakota Supreme Court yesterday issued a decision applying mistake of law doctrine to reform a trust. The case is In Re: Matthew Larson Trust Agreement, 2013 WL 2302304, No. 20120319 (N.D., May 28, 2013).
The case centers around trusts created by Matthew Larson's maternal grandparents, the Clairmonts. After the trusts were created, Matthew's parents divorced and his father remarried. That marraige produced other children who became Matthew's half-siblings.
Matthew died intestate, without spouse or descendants, in 2011. At issue in the case is the provision for distribution of the trust in the even of Matthew Larson's death. The provision in the first trust read (with emphasis added):
If the Beneficiary shall die before receiving complete distribution of the trust, the Trustee shall distribute the balance of the trust as the Beneficiary designates under his or her Last Will and Testament or under any other instrument exercising this general power of appointment. In the event that the Beneficiary does not exercise this general power of appointment, the Trustee shall distribute the balance of the trust to the Beneficiary's surviving issue by right of representation . . . and if Beneficiary leaves no surviving issue, then equally to Beneficiary's brothers and sisters and the issue of a deceased brother or sister by right of representation.
The distribution terms in the second trust includes similar conditional language, providing for possible distribution to Matthew's "brothers and sisters of Matthew then living." Because Matthew died with no will and no spouse, without issue and without otherwise appointing surviving beneficiaries, the provision in the trusts distributing trust corpus to his "brothers and sisters" became operative.
The question before the court is whether or not the phrase "Beneficiary's brothers and sisters" includes Greg Larson's children by the second marraige - Matthew's half-siblings. The Clairmonts argued the trusts should be interpreted to include only Matthew Larson's brothers and sisters who are lineal descendants of the Clairmonts and not the children of Greg Larson by a marraige to someone other than their daughter. The Clairmonts lost their claim for reformation at trial.
The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed. The Court first noted that North Dakota law allows trusts to be reformed to conform to the settlor's intentions, "if it is proved by clear and convincing evidence that both the settlor's intent and the terms of the trust were affected by a mistake of fact or law, whether in expression or inducement." North Dakota adopted this statute from section 415 of the Uniform Trust Code, which itself mirrors Restatement (Third) of Prop.: Donative Transfers § 12.1 (Tentative Draft No. 1, 1995). Trust law authorizes reformation in part to prevent unjust enrichment to unintended beneficiaries.
The Court further observed that mistake of law supporting trust reformation differs from mistake of law supporting contract reformation. The court noted that, "[r]eformation of a contract generally requires a mutual mistake between the parties.' Contract reformation normally requires mutuality to prevent courts from imposing a reformed contract upon the non-mistaken party that the non-mistaken party did not bargin for. On the other hand, the courts require no such mutuality to reform a trust because the settlor typically does not receive consideration in exchange for creating the trust. Only the settlor's intent is involved in creating the trust. The Court's comments on the mutuality requirement in the two contexts is particularly instructive.
The Clairmonts testified they were mistakened as to the meaning of "brothers and sisters" and believed the terms meant full-blooded siblings. Both Clairmonts and the attorney that drafted the second trust testified they believed the term "brothers and sisters" meant siblings that were lineal descendants of the Clairmonts. They also testified that the Clairmonts did not intend to benefit Greg Larson's children by his second wife in establishing the trust. The Court determined no evidence existed to dispute this testimony. The Court concluded that applying the trial court's conclusions correctly to the law requires reformation providing, "that only Matthew Larson's brothers and sisters who are descendants of the Clairmonts may benefit from the trusts."
Saturday, May 18, 2013
In many situations, the first to file a lawsuit in a controversy obtains procedural and sometimes substantive advantages over later filers. The Utah Supreme Court held last week, however, that winning the race to the courthouse carries no special advantage in adoption cases. The case is S.C. vs. Utah, No. 20120016 (Utah May 7, 2013).
In this child protection case, following termination, the foster parents filed first for adoption of the five-year old child at issue and later, a grandmother filed for adoption. The trial court consolidated the cases then announced that the grandmother's petition would be considered only if the court denied the foster parents' petition. The trial court then considered and granted the foster parents' petition and dismissed the grandmother's petition. Grandmother appealed.
The Utah Supreme Court reversed the trial court, holding that the best interest of the child remained the paramount issue when competing adoption petitions were filed. Considering the petitions in the order of filing, the Court held, created the potential for decision on grounds unrelated to the best interests. The Court instructed that a trial court considering competing adoption petitions must hear evidence and consider each petition on the merits without giving priority to the first to file. The best interest of the child therefore, and not filing priority, controls the final determination following the Court's unanimous decision.
In this case, the court resolved a split on the subject in Utah's intermediate courts. One more note of interest - this case was certified under Utah law for direct appeal to the Utah Supreme Court, so there was no intermediate court opinion.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court holds that a forum selection and limitation of liability clause is not enforceable under Massachusetts law in a browsewrap agreement. This is an interesting opinion because it touches on a number contract law issues and estate law issues (not covered in this post) as applied to cyberspace.
The case involves the interpretation of Yahoo!'s Terms of Service (TOS) relating to its free email service. The case was brought by the administrators of the estate of a Yahoo email user to get court approval for access to the account and the content of the emails. Because the Yahoo! TOS had a forum selection clause requiring that all disputes be brought in California, the Court had the opportunity to interpret the enforceability under Massachusetts law of such clauses in online agreements. After noting that the SJC has not previously considered the enforceability of forum selection and limitation of liability clauses in online agreements, it looked to the case law on such issues in traditional paper contracts. In those cases, courts have enforced such provisions as long as they have been reasonably communicated and accepted and if, considering all the circumstances, it is reasonable to enforce the provision at issue. The burden on the first prong fall on the issuer of the TOS. On the second prong (that the TOS themselves were reasonable), in the forum selection case, the burden falls on the plaintiffs, and no such burden applies in case of a limitations provision.
The Court also held that Yahoo! failed in showing that the TOS were accepted. Past cases have enforced such provisions only in click-wrap agreements (where "terms of the agreement were displayed, at least in part, on the user's computer screen and the user was required to signify his or her assent by clicking 'I accept.'"), but not in browsewrap agreements (where "website terms and conditions of use are posted on the website typically as a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen."). On that basis, the Court refused to extend the enforceability to browsewrap agreements and held that the record did not show "the terms of any agreement were reasonably communicated or that they were accepted."
The Court also held that the TOS would not be enforceable against the estate adminstrators because they were not third party beneficiaries of this contract. The Court looked to precedent from other jurisdictions on this issue, where courts have held nonsignatory third parties could be bound where the nonparty is "sufficiently closely related to a signatory that it is foreseeable that the nonsignatory will be bound."
Finally, the Court also found the forum selection clause itself to be unreasonably broad. The clause provided: "You and Yahoo agree to submit to the personal and exclusive jurisdiction of the courts located within the county of Santa Clara, California." The Court held that as written this provision would require a suit of any nature to be brought in California, even if it had nothing to do with the email account or the online terms. It reasoned that this provision should not be enforced "articularly since it was contained in a consumer contract drafted unilaterally."
Adjunct Law Professor of Corporate Mergers and Acquisitions
New England School of Law
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decision Interprets a Landlord’s Indemnification Rights under a Commercial Lease
A recent decision by the Massachusetts SJC provides a short master class on indemnification provisions in a commercial lease. (For those interested, a link to the oral argument can also be found here.) While I do not focus on real estate in my practice or teaching, a lease is a contract like any other, so it seemed worthwhile to review this decision.
The case involved a long term commercial lease in downtown Boston. The lease started in 2006, and two years later (2008 was not exactly a great real estate market) the tenant suspended its business operations and stopped paying rent, causing the landlord to declare a default, terminate the lease and seek to re-let the premises. The landlord ultimately filled the space almost two years later, albeit at a lower overall rent, but for a new lease term that went beyond the term of the terminated lease. The landlord then sought to recover its lost rent for this period (including the period following the original lease term) from the original tenant (and its guarantor).
The lease contained a general indemnification clause requiring the tenant to indemnify the landlord against “all loss of rent and other payments which Landlord may incur by reason of such termination during the remainder of the term." The lease did not grant the landlord a liquidated damages remedy or any other remedy apart from indemnification.
In a colorful opinion, citing Oliver Wendell-Holmes (citing Lord Coke), the Court ruled that Massachusetts law does not permit the landlord, absent an express lease provision, to recover lost rent for time periods outside of the original lease term. Distinguishing this case from a 1905 decision cited by a lower court in this proceeding, the SJC held that a landlord cannot recover for post-termination damages under an indemnification clause in a lease until the end of the period specified in the lease, when the amount of indemnification is uncertain, unless the indemnification clause specifically provides that damages may be recovered earlier. The Court sympathized with landlord’s argument that being required to wait until the end of the lease term to enforce an indemnity could be prejudicial in various ways, including that the tenant may be long gone by that point and any adjudged amount may prove uncollectible. However, the Court refused to adopt an exception to this common law rule, reasoning that landlords are in the best position to assess this type of risk and therefore should be required to state so in their leases. The Court stated that “a landlord left without an adequate remedy following breach … has only itself to blame for entering into a lease that fails to provide such a remedy.”
The Court also rejected the landlord’s argument that it was entitled to recover "benefit of the bargain" damages in the event of termination of the lease following a breach. The Court followed the long-standing common law that once a landlord terminates a lease, the tenant is no longer obligated to pay the rent, and, unless the lease provides otherwise, the landlord is not entitled to post-termination damages.
This case emphasizes the importance of carefully drafted remedy provisions in any commercial documents. Parties should not place their faith on courts to help them recover damages for which they did not negotiate, and would be well-advised to review their lease forms in light of this decision.
Adjunct Law Professor of Corporate Mergers and Acquisitions
New England School of Law
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Often complex business deals are built upon multiple contract which taken together lead to a single business transaction. When and to what extent may a prevailing party in an American Rule jurisdiction collect attorney's fees from the breaching party when that single business transaction goes wrong and some but not all contracts contributing to the transaction include a provision for recovering attorney's fees? The Supreme Court of Connectucut, in a case of first impression, tackled that very question Tuesday in Total Recycling Services of Conn., Inc. v. Connecticut Oil Recycling Services, LLC., No. 18823, 2013 WL 1500840 (Conn. April 23, 2013).
Total Recycling originates from the sale of an oil recycling business expressed by the parties in three contracts - an equipment contract, a goodwill contract and a noncompete contract. The goodwill and noncompete contracts included a provision entitling the defendant to attorney's fees if the plaintiff breached the agreement -- the equipment contract did not.
Disputes arose between the parties with the plaintiff and defendant filing claims and counterclaims against one another. The plaintiff prevailed on its unjust enrichment claim only while the defendant prevailed on claims that plaintiff breached the contracts, though damages were assessed only as to the equipment contract. The trial court denied defendant's claim for attorney's fees because the contract upon which defendant recovered damages did not include an attorneys fees recovery provision, a reasoning later rejected by the intermediate appellate court.
On remand, the trial court denied the attorney's fees claim because the defendant failed to apportion attorneys fees among the three contracts. The intermediate appellate court affirmed the denial on those grounds. The Supreme Court certified this question: "Did the Appellate Court improperly affirm the judgment of the trial court denying the defendant's motion for contractual attorney's fees?" The Supreme Court answered this question affirmatively and remanded for further proceedings.
The Supreme Court held, "when certain claims provide for a party's recovery of contractual attorney's fees but others do not, a party is nevertheless entitled to a full recovery of reasonable attorney's fees if an apportionment is impractical because the claims arise from a common factual nucleus and are intertwined." The court concluded that defendant should not be required to apportion attorney's fees between the goodwill and noncompete contract claim, for which attorney's fees were recoverable, and the equipment contract, for which attorney's fees were not recoverable, because the claims involved the same transaction, the same parties, the same conduct and the same time frame. Under these circumstances, the court concluded apportioning attorneys fees among and between the contracts was not practicable.
Monday, March 11, 2013
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments on January 10 to answer whether or not a pet owner can recover for the sentimental value of a dog lost due to another's negligence.
The case is Carla Strickland v. Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen (Case No. 12-0047). The case came to the Texas high court following an intermediate appeallate court's opinion reversing a trial court's order dismissing the claim against Strickland with prejudice. According to a David Yates report in the Southeast Texas Record, the allegations in the case are that an animal shelter took possession of the Medlen's dog after it escaped the Medlen's yard. Jeremy Medlen went to pick up the animal, but did not have enough money to cover the fees. Medlen alleges he was told he could come back with the money and a "hold for owner" tag would be put on the dog. Strickland, it is alleged, neglegently put the dog on the list of animals to be euthanized, and it was, and when Medlen returned for the dog, he learned what had happened.
More after the jump:
Friday, October 26, 2012
In a major family law decision, the Supreme Court of Kentucky yesterday, relying on Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), held that a fit parent is presumed to act in the best interest of the child and that a grandparent seeking child visitation against the parent's wishes must overcome the presumption by clear and convicing evidence that allowing the grandparent visitation is in the child's best interest. Walker v. Blair, No. 2012-SC-000004-DGE (Ky., Oct. 25, 2012).
In this case, paternal grandparent filed for visitation of her grandchild after her son, the grandchild's father, committed suicide under a pre-Troxel state law. Mother opposed the visitation. The Supreme Court held the pre-Troxel grandparent visition statute to be constitutional and interpreted the law to comply with Troxel's requirement that fit parents be presumed to act in the child's best interest. Because the trial and appellate courts in this case placed the parent and grandparent on equal footing and did not give the parent's decision to deny visition the special weight required by Troxel, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.
See also: Louisville Courier-Journal story here.
Friday, August 24, 2012
The common law release rule provides that a plaintiff’s settlement with, and release from liability of, one joint tortfeasor also releases from liability all other joint tortfeasors.
The California Supreme Court repudiated the common law release rule yesterday in Lueng v. Verdugo Hills Hospital, No. S192768 (Cal. August 23, 2012). The unanamous court wrote:
The rationale for the common law release rule was “that there could be only one compensation for a joint wrong and since each joint tortfeasor was responsible for the whole damage, payment by any one of them satisfied plaintiff’s claim against all.” That rationale assumes that the amount paid in settlement to a plaintiff in return for releasing one joint tortfeasor from liability always provides full compensation for all of the plaintiff’s injuries, and that therefore anything recovered by the plaintiff beyond that amount necessarily constitutes a double or excess recovery. The assumption, however, is unjustified. For a variety of reasons — such as the settling defendant’s limited resources or relatively minor role in causing the plaintiff’s injury — a plaintiff may be willing to release one tortfeasor for an amount far less than the total necessary to fully compensate the plaintiff for all injuries incurred. As Dean Prosser observed in his criticism of the common law release rule: “There is a genuine distinction between a satisfaction and a release.”
Monday, August 20, 2012
Last Thursday, the California Supreme Court unanimously overturned a 110-year to life sentence against a juvenile offender on Eighth Amendment grounds. Citing Graham v. Florida, 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010) (holding the Eighth Amendment prohibits states from sentencing a juvenile convicted of nonhomicide offenses to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole), the court held that such a sentence against a juvenile for a nonhomicide offense violates the juvenile's right against cruel and unusual punishment.
The case is People v. Caballero, No. S190647 (Cal. Aug. 16, 2012), and may be found here.
Hat tip: Sentencing Law and Policy
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
On Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court that legislative caps on the amount an injured plaintiff may recover for non-economic damages in a medical malpractice case violate the state's constitutional right to trial by jury. Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, No. SC91867 (Mo. July 31, 2012). The court decided the case 4-3.
The Missouri legislature previously passed a law limiting the recovery for non-economic damages in a medical malpractice case to $350,000. Deborah Watts brought suit against her physician on behalf of her child, Naython Kayne Watts, for brain injuries sustained by the child during pre-natal care and delivery. A Missouri jury awarded Watts $1.45 million in non-economic damages, however, following the recovery cap law, the trial court reduced the recovery to $350,000.
The Missouri Supreme Court employed a textual and historical analysis to overturn the recovery limitation law. Missouri's state consitution, adopted in 1820, guarantees that "the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain involate..." The court read the guarantee to mean that if Missouri common law entitled a plaintiff to a jury trial on non-economic damage in a medical negligence action prior to the state consitution being enacted, then Watts had that same right guaranteed in the present.
The court found that Blackstone identified medical negligence as one of "five types of private wrongs" that could be redressed in court, and that English common law allowed plaintiffs so injured to recover non-economic damages. Further, the court found that Missouri law pre-statehood provided for a jury trial in "all cases of the value of one hundred dollars ... if either of the parties require it." Because the right to jury trial on non-economic damages in a medical malpractice existed at common law prior to 1820, the court concluded, Watts enjoys a constitutionally guaranteed right to trial by jury on her claim for non-economic damages.
The court's decision overturned Adams by and Through Adams v. Children's Mercy Hospital, 832 S.W.2d 898, 907 (Mo. 1992) which had previously upheld the recovery cap against a similar state constitutional challenge. The disagreement between Adams and Watts is on whether or not the Missouri right to trial by jury is satisfied by the mere trial before the jury. Inasmuch as the law allows the jury to hear the evidence and assess damages, Adams concluded, the constitutional guarantee is satisfied even though the recovery cap essentially renders the jury's decision without meaning beyond the cap amount. The Watts court rejected this interpretation:
Adams fundamentally misconstrues the nature of the right to trial by jury. While [the Missouri Constitution] sets the constitutional role of the jury, it does so by guaranteeing an individual right to a trial by jury. The application of [the recover cap law] may permit the jury to perform its constitutional role, but it deprives the individual of his or her right to the damages awarded by the jury. The constitutional significance of the jury’s role in determining damages is reflected in the analytical basis for determining whether the right to trial by jury attaches -- if the action is a civil action for damages, then the right to a jury trial attaches and must “remain inviolate.” Because the constitutional right to a civil jury trial is contingent upon there being an action for damages, statutory limits on those damages directly curtail the individual right to one of the most significant constitutional roles performed by the jury -- the determination of damages. The argument that section 538.210 does not interfere with the right to trial by jury because the jury had a practically meaningless opportunity to assess damages simply “pays lip service to the form of the jury but robs it of its function.”
States continue to return mixed verdicts on state constitutional challenges to recovery cap legislation, typically on textual, historical or structural grounds.
Monday, July 2, 2012
Today, the New Mexico Supreme Court released a unanimous family law decision of first impression, holding that the New Mexico Emancipation of Minors Act ("Emancipation Act") authorizes a district court to emanicpate a minor for some, but not all of the enumerated purposes in the act. Applied to this particular case, the decision reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed a district court's order emancipating the minor plaintiff while also awarding the minor monthly child support payments from her mother. Diamond v. Diamond, No, 32,695 (N.M. July 2, 2012).
Here, Jhette Diamond ("Daughter") filed for and won emancipation from her Mother at age 16 with the court reserving Daughter's right to collect child support (Daughter is now in her early 20's). Mother did not participate in the hearing, but later filed a motion to set aside the judgment. The trial court conducted a hearing on the motion and denied the Mother's relief, as well as Mother's objection to her duty to support the now emancipated Daughter (Mother conceived Daughter by artificial insemination, Id., fn 1, at 4). The New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed.
The Emancipation Act describes nine puposes for which a minor may be emancipated by a court, and further provides that a court may emancipate a minor "for one or more" of those purposes. One such purpose is the minor's "right to support by his parents." The Supreme Court applied rules of statutory construction to concludes the Emancipation Act authorized a court to emanicpate a minor "for a single enumerated purpose, for all nine enumerated purposes, or for any intermediate number of enumerated purposes." Id, at 6.
The Supreme Court also rejected Mother's argument that Daughter could not prove she was "managing her own financial affairs" (a requirement for emancipation under the Emancipation Act) if she required or needed financial assistance from her. The Supreme Court observed that the Emanicpation Act contemplated that the emancipated minor may require public assistance and expressly provides a minor may not be denied such benefits to which she may be entitled because of emancipation. In rejecting Mother's argument, the Court pointed out further that the trial court did not emancipate Daughter from her support right.
The New Mexico court closed by examining a minor's right to support from her parents under common law and the laws of other states. The several states offer mixed results often turning on statutory language, from all-or-nothing emancipation (California, Vermont), to all-or-partial emancipation (Montana, Nevada) to emanicpation that mandates continued parental support (Michigan). The court found that courts created common law emancipation to protect a child's labor from the parents' creditors, and provided for partial emancipation where appropriate. Of particular note was P. J. Hunycutt & Co. v. Thompson, 74 S.E.628 (N.C. 1912), where the court held that where the father "ran off" the son, the son's later emancipation would not halt the father's support obligations. Diamond, at 13-15.
Monday, June 25, 2012
Last week, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued an important decision affirming a civil litigant's right to be present at trial.
The case is Kesterson v. Jarrett, No. S11G0590 (Ga. June 18, 2012), wherein the parents of a child suffering from severe cerebral palsy allegedly resulting from medial malpractice challenged a jury's take-nothing decision favoring the obstretricdian and hospital after the trial court excluded the child from the courtroom. The intermediate court affirmed, but the high court reversed, sending the case back to the trial court for a new trial.
Prior to trial in this case, the defendants moved to have the child excluded on grounds that her presence would result in an "undue prejudicial impact on the jury as to the liability issue." and because the child could not "meaningfully participate in and comprehend the proceedings." A key precedent for both the trial and intermediate court was Helminski v. Ayerst Labs., 766 F.2d 208, 218 (6th Cir. 1985).
The Georgia Supreme Court reversed in 6-1 decision, affirming the child's right to be present, despite her severe impairment and despite that her parents, as next friends, were allowed to be present. The takeaway:
There is, in other words, a personal element to the right to be present. The right is based not only on what the party can do to the case, but on what the case will do to the party. It is the party's interests that are being determined by the jury and the judge, and it is the party's life that will be directly affected by the outcome of the case.Thus, even if a person is deemed incompetent as a matter of law (for example, a young child like Kyla) or as a matter of fact (as Kyla may be), and must therefore be represented by a parent, guardian, or custodian, the person is still considered to be the "real party in interest." Even if she is unable, or the law does not allow her, to make the decisions about her case, she remains a person directly affected by the verdict. The individuals whose legal disputes are brought to our courts for decision cannot be treated merely "as an exhibit, as a piece of evidence," regardless of their legal competence.
The Court stated that concerns about prejudice arising from a party's presence should be addressed through jury instructions or other procedures without infringing on a party’s right to be present.