Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thanks for Nothin'!

Ainsworth v. Chandler, 2014 VT 107

By Andrew Delaney

In the usual course, a defendant is thrilled when his insurer steps in and gets the case against him tossed on summary judgment. This case is different.

Boyfriend and girlfriend met up at the office for boyfriend’s electrical business. When they went to leave, girlfriend allegedly tripped over a coil of wire left by the stairway and was injured. Sometime later, boyfriend sued his insurer for bad faith, and insurer counterclaimed for noncoverage. Then girlfriend filed suit against boyfriend while the other suit was pending. The trial court granted summary judgment to boyfriend and dismissed the girlfriend-boyfriend personal-injury suit, finding that girlfriend was a licensee and not a business invitee, and thus, defendant didn’t breach any duty of care. Because the underlying personal-injury claim was dismissed, the trial court also ruled in favor of insurer in the other case, concluding no coverage was owed.

Let’s play Can You Spot the Error? Here’s a hint.

Yes, that’s right ladies and gentlemen—there’s no longer a distinction between invitees and licensees because the SCOV kicked that distinction to the curb just under a month and a half ago. Not that it was necessarily wrong when the trial court made the ruling, but it is now—and that spells R-E-V-E-R-S-A-L.

Both girlfriend and boyfriend contest the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in boyfriend’s favor.

The SCOV begins with the backstory on the trial court’s ruling on insurer’s motion for summary judgment. At the time of the accident, girlfriend and boyfriend (a.k.a. plaintiff and defendant) had been dating six years. The visit to the business was apparently a social visit. She went up to boyfriend’s office—which entailed going up a short set of stairs to a landing and then up a longer set of stairs—to say hello to him. There were coils of wire stacked near the lower stairs, but nothing protruding into the stairway at that time.

They left together with girlfriend leading the way. She made it down the first set of stairs, but then caught her ankle on a coil of wire and fell at the bottom of the second set. “She stated that, although she saw nothing on the stairwell steps when she looked back at the stairs immediately after falling, she did see a wire protruding into the stairwell space from the spools sitting to the side of the stairwell.” Her alleged injuries included “partial blindness, a severe ankle sprain, scrapes and bruises, and a fractured tooth.”

Four months before girlfriend filed suit against boyfriend, he sued insurer for millions of dollars in damages for its failure to properly honor girlfriend’s claims as well as over a million dollars in damages he was probably going to have to pay girlfriend and her attorney. Insurer denied everything and counterclaimed for a declaration of noncoverage.

So, then girlfriend sued boyfriend for millions of dollars. This is the part that cracks me up. Boyfriend was all like, “Well, shucks, you got me. I’m totally liable.” Insurer, upon learning of this development, was all like, “Hey! Wait just a second here!” and moved to intervene, which the court allowed.

So insurer moved for summary judgment against plaintiff. It argued to the trial court that girlfriend was a social guest and thus “defendant’s duty of care only required disclosure of dangerous conditions known to him, which he did not breach.” Girlfriend responded that she was a customer and a guest of boyfriend, “that insurer’s sales agent testified on deposition that there was a lot of debris around the stairway of defendant’s business, and that the State had issued ‘violation notes’ after visiting the business premises in 2005.” The trial court granted insurer’s motion for summary judgment against girlfriend, and later tossed boyfriend’s suit against insurer as moot.

On appeal, girlfriend argues that the trial court screwed up when it determined she was a social guest. Boyfriend also says the trial court got summary judgment wrong, so dismissal of his suit against insurer was wrong too.

If you can’t recite the standard on appeal from summary judgment by memory now—while intoxicated and being bludgeoned about the head with a heavy pillow—then you haven’t been reading this blog very long. But what the hell—we’ll run through it again: the SCOV asks first whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and next whether a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, though the nonmoving party still has the burden of rebutting the moving party’s otherwise uncontested evidence.

The social-guest question is interesting. There’s a short discussion about the common-law evolution of the various distinctions, but it’s really just a history lesson. Now, the trial court couldn’t have predicted that the SCOV would do away with those classic distinctions while this case was on direct appeal, but that’s exactly what it did and the SCOV reverses accordingly.

The SCOV notes that if there weren’t any issue of material fact on ordinary negligence, then the SCOV could still affirm the trial court—the trial court reasoned that in any event, girlfriend was lacking on duty and breach. The SCOV disagrees, pointing to “plaintiff’s deposition testimony that she did not see the wire in the stairs before she tripped, and defendant’s admissions that the area was poorly lit, covered in debris, and unsecured,” the SCOV concludes that a reasonable jury could find in plaintiff’s favor on these elements. Accordingly, the SCOV reverses the trial court’s grant of summary judgment against plaintiff.

The SCOV next takes a look at boyfriend’s motions to disqualify the trial judge—he filed a bunch of ‘em. His complaints were based on the trial judge once saying she hadn’t read boyfriend’s case file, an alleged financial conflict with the judge’s former law firm, and his disagreements with her rulings and handling of the case. An administrative judge denied one of the motions, so he moved to disqualify her too. The administrative judge, he claimed, “harbored a bias against pro se litigants" and "she did not sufficiently investigate the trial judge’s behavior.”

The whole shebang then got passed to another superior court judge who denied the motions. He found that boyfriend’s motions were broad claims of prejudice without evidentiary support. The trial court found the financial impropriety claim highly unlikely because the alleged financial conflict with the trial judge’s former law firm arose after the judge left the firm.

The SCOV notes that the Code of Judicial Conduct calls for disqualification when the judge’s impartiality may be reasonable questioned. The SCOV reviews denial of such a motion for abuse of discretion.

There’s no abuse of discretion here. “Defendant has offered no evidence to lend factual support to any of his allegations of prejudice.” Just because a judge rules against a party does not show bias. Though boyfriend argues on appeal that the dispute with the judge’s former firm was really with the judge in particular, he didn’t raise that below and the SCOV isn’t going to consider it. Did the SCOV just help boyfriend write his next motion to disqualify?

At any rate, the SCOV affirms the denials of boyfriend’s motions to disqualify judges, and reverses the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in boyfriend’s favor. Because summary judgment in favor of insurer hinged on its dismissal of girlfriend’s claims, boyfriend’s claim against insurer gets brought back too.

This opinion is an interesting read. Boyfriend and girlfriend got married in 2010, but on appeal she says they’re no longer married. And if you ever need support for the notion that changes in law take effect while a case is on direct appeal, just look to footnote 2.

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