Saturday, May 31, 2014

Moose Lodge Mayhem

Buxton v. Springfield Lodge No. 679, Loyal Order of Moose, Inc., 2014 VT 52

By Andrew Delaney

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. This case even has mom bustin’ up a fight.

Plaintiff was a partygoer who was injured during a Moose Lodge New Year’s Eve party when a fight broke out between two other partygoers. It gets a little confusing what with the “juniors” and “seniors” and so on, so let’s just call those players by their familial designations—mom, dad, and son.

Mom, dad, and son (an adult) were at the party. Dad was the governor of the Lodge—the highest position within the Lodge pecking order. Son had a reputation as a “hothead” and a “fighter,” and by all accounts he lived up to that reputation.

Son was bickering with one Danny Snide about arm wrestling, which is prohibited in the Lodge. Snide’s wife said something to dad about it, but dad didn’t stop it right away.

Meanwhile, son got in a fight with some unknown dude in the men’s bathroom. Who knows how that happened? Anyway, mom broke that up. Dad arrived and asked someone to keep son in the bathroom while he looked for mystery dude.

Son "escaped" from the bathroom and got in a fight with Snide. Plaintiff was injured in the resulting commotion.

Plaintiff sued the Lodge and dad in his individual capacity for negligence.

He introduced some sections of the new-lodge-officers-orientation guide in support of this theory. Apparently, these sections name the governor as chair of the house committee, and place the house committee in charge of social activities. Notably, however, the guide specifically notes that other than the governor’s authority to impose fines, a member of the house committee has no authority in social situations as an individual.

First, on summary judgment, the trial court dismissed all claims against dad. Then, during trial, the court granted partial judgment as a matter of law, concluding that the Lodge’s liability couldn’t be based on dad’s action or inaction. Plaintiff appealed.

The SCOV dives right into the summary judgment issue, noting that it treats each decision separately. (To be fair, the SCOV does that before it even gets to the facts, but we like to keep you in suspense here. If you want the surprise ruined, you can always read the opinion).

Standard of review Twitter-hashtag style? Sure: #scovgodenovo, #sumjay, #genuinedispute, #materialfact, #judgment, #matteroflaw. If y’all don’t get that, let me translate: the SCOV reviews a grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, inquiring whether there is any genuine issue of material fact, and if not, asking whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Here, the SCOV notes that in order to survive summary judgment on the negligence claim directly against dad, plaintiff has to show that dad owed some duty of care to him.  That, the SCOV notes, turns on whether dad had a duty to stop the fight between son and Snide. The SCOV also points out that in general, there’s no affirmative duty to protect, aid, or rescue another.

Plaintiff’s argument, more or less, is that as governor of the Lodge, dad voluntarily undertook to protect third parties from harm. It’s a fair-enough and familiar argument, but the SCOV declines to apply it in this case. The SCOV reasons that the only evidence plaintiff had suggesting any sort of duty was the orientation guide, and there isn’t much there at all. The SCOV opines: “Whatever duty [dad] undertook as governor, it did not include the duty plaintiff asserted.”

The SCOV also notes that the trial could’ve granted the Lodge summary judgment on any claims premised on dad’s action or inaction at that point. But the trial court let the question of whether dad should’ve warned the bartenders or other security go to trial. According to the SCOV, dad didn’t have any duty to act, nor did he have any duty to warn.

The SCOV discusses the vicarious-liability doctrine (#respondeatsuperior), noting that in order to find a principal liable for its agent’s acts in the tort context, a plaintiff has to show all elements of the agent’s torts. Plaintiff is kind of missing an essential linkage here. Should’ve granted summary judgment . . . the SCOV seems to be muttering, But it didn’t, so now we’ve gotta do this judgment-as-a-matter-of-law thing.

Now, at trial, dad admitted that one of his duties as Lodge governor was to “maintain order” at the Lodge. “Aha!” says plaintiff, “Gotcha!” Plaintiff also points to bylaws that require the house committee to “enforce and maintain proper decorum at all times.”

The standard of review is so close to the standard for summary judgment that this time we’re just going to add the hashtags “#excludemodifyingevidence” and “#morethanascintilla.”

Again, liability turns on whether dad had any duty of care to plaintiff. The SCOV first addresses plaintiff’s as-chair-of-the-house-committee-dad-had-a-bylaws-imposed-duty argument. “You abandoned that argument at trial,” says the SCOV, noting plaintiff’s counsel’s “I’ll withdraw what I was saying about that specific section” statement and citing a 1949 case about unqualified concessions constituting binding waivers. Personally—given the supposed deference to the nonmoving party—this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But what do I know? I just write goofy summaries with bad hashtags.

The SCOV notes that even if it were going to conclude that plaintiff didn’t waive the argument, the argument fails. The whole “maintaining decorum” thing is an after-the-fact proposition according to the bylaws, and the governor is chair of the house committee “for the sole purpose of presiding at the meetings.”

Regarding the governor’s general responsibility to “maintain order,” the SCOV notes that it’s not about to impose a duty to warn of and prevent misconduct so broad as to be unworkable on volunteer officers. Under the scope of the duty as plaintiff argues, the SCOV reasons that “the governor would have to be present at all times to monitor the facilities and prevent improper actions.” The SCOV notes, additionally, that the governor’s appointment as chair of the house committee implies that the governor is supposed to act through the committee and not as some kind of John-Wayne-cowboy-enforcer type.

Moving on, the SCOV notes even if it were to say “maintain decorum” is enough to impose liability, officers of the Lodge are no longer acting as officers the moment they take a drink. Thus, there’s no principal–agent relationship at all under these facts.

So, without the necessary lines to connect the dots, the trial court didn’t err in either ruling, and the SCOV affirms.

If I were dad, regardless of the “win,” son would be grounded for life.

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