Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court February Docket

The Idaho Supreme Court released its February docket today. The Court will hear 14 appeals over five days at the Supreme Court building in Boise. The Court will take up a handful of criminal appeals in the next month. However, on the civil side, there are several cases that could be quite interesting.

For example Hoover v. Hunter et al is medical malpractice claim that was dismissed on summary judgment. The district court dismissed the case because the plaintiff had not generated triable issues of material fact as to whether the community standard of care had been breached by the medical practitioners. The appeal could potentially have far reaching consequences for medical malpractice plaintiffs. The appeal is even more interesting because the appellant/plaintiff is proceeding pro se.

Other cases involve the alleged breach of settlement agreements, which is an area of the law that Idaho could use more guidance on from the Idaho Supreme Court. One case will involve the Notice and Opportunity to Repair Act, a fairly new piece of Idaho legislation. In fact, an attorney with my firm handled an appeal that provided the Idaho Supreme Court with its first chance to interpret NORA. So the outcome of Perception Construction Management, Inc. v. Bell is one to watch for.

Overall, it looks like a busy month for the Court.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court--Chief Justice Eismann speaks on steps of Idaho State Capitol

Since this blog is about the goings on with the Idaho Supreme Court, it's not always just about the Court's opinions. Of course, being in Idaho Falls, and not Boise, makes it a bit more difficult to follow the public appearances or speaking engagements the justices may have. However, The Post Register reported today that the Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court spoke to a large rally on the steps if the Idaho Capitol. Among the Chief's comments was a statement that, according to The Post Register, "the greatest threat to liberty is a strong national government."

According to the paper, Eismann's speech concerned 16 specific principles of liberty that he believes are encompassed in the government established by the founders. Notwithstanding the statement about a strong national government constituting a threat to liberty, the Chief Justice's speech did acknowledge that government is essential to the enjoyment of liberties while warning against the curtailing of liberty in the aftermaths of crises.

While I don't try to wax political on the blog, it is interesting to get some insight into the philosophical and political beliefs the various justices have about the constitution, the role of federalism in governing the populace, and how the two systems (federal and state) interact. The insight into the justices provides argumentative angles that attorneys can use in appellate briefing or during oral argument. Of course, the danger is that if you play to one particular justice's sensitivities you might alienate 2 or 3 other justices who have different beliefs about the role of government. It's a delicate balance and issue. However, I think it's rare to receive this kind of insight into the psyche of the sitting Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court -- Page v. Pasquali et al

This one goes back a month. On December 23, 2010, the Idaho Supreme Court decided Page v. Pasquali. It's a brief 5-0 decision affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment.

The facts are pretty simple. The Pages bought property in 1995 and assumed an existing debt for almost $50,000. They assumed a promissory note in favor of Pasquali. The Note was secured by a Deed of Trust. In 2002, the home was damaged by heavy snowfall and the Pages received a settlement check for approximately $29,000. Pasquali was the loss payee of the insurance policy. Pasquali sent approximately $21,000 to the lending company and sent $8,000 to the Pages. The Pages subsequently stopped paying the Note, filed bankruptcy, had their petition dismissed, and then the home was sold at a Trustee's sale. The Pages filed suit against Pasquali and Rupe claiming that they never defaulted and that the $21,000 payment should have counted as fifty-eight future monthly payments instead of being applies to the principal debt owed at the time of payment.

The Idaho Supreme Court affirms the district court's dismissal of the Pages of the complaint, finding that the Deed of Trust and Note are unambiguous. The Court finds that the Note clearly states that any prepayments made "shall be credited first on interest then due and the remainder on principal." The Note does not contemplate prepayments acting as future payments in any equivalent amount. Since the documents and their requirements are unambiguous, the Court finds that the district court properly found the Pages to be in default.

Additionally, the Court notes that the district court also relied on two other grounds for finding default: the failure to pay property taxes and the failure to maintain insurance. The Pages did not appeal from those two findings. So the Court reasons that even if the district court erred by finding that the $21,000 should have counted as future monthly payments, the Pages defaulted anyway.

The Idaho Supreme Court then awards attorney fees under 12-121 for a frivolous appeal by the Pages. The Pages' failure to argue the other grounds that the district court relied upon to find default justified the fees.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court--Jones v. Starnes

On January 10, 2011, the Idaho Supreme Court decided Jones v. Starnes. The Court unanimously affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment on several theories of liability brought by the Jones in the underlying lawsuit.

On December 17, 2005, the Jones' and their friends went to dinner and then stopped at a local bar, Boomers, in Lewiston, Idaho. Mr. Joshua Jones never entered Boomers but waited in his truck while his friend went into Boomers for some unstated purpose. While Jones waited outside the bar, the Boomers' bouncer escorted a Boomers' patron outside. The patron hit Jones' truck for some purpose and then a group of people spilled out of Boomers and onto the street and sidewalk outside the bar. Jones got out of the truck to "clear a path" for the truck and was struck in the face and knocked down by one of the individuals. Jones could never identify his assailant.

Jones subsequently sued Boomers and its owners for his injuries. Boomers filed a motion for summary judgment, which Judge Brudie granted as to all counts alleged by Jones.

Jones' first theory of liability was negligence. However, negligence requires a duty of care before liability can be imposed. The Idaho Supreme Court finds that Jones' assault was unforeseeable and that Jones had no evidence that Boomers' knew that Jones' assailant had any violent propensities. Jones also had no evidence that Boomers served any alcohol the group from which his assailant came nor that alcohol played any part in the assault. Additionally, the Court finds that Jones was never a patron of Boomers and that Boomers, at most, only owed a duty to its patrons.

A second theory of liability is that of premises liability. The Idaho Supreme Court rejects Jones' arguments because the assault occurred on a public sidewalk or street and not on Boomers' property. A second reason for denying Jones' theory is that any harms were caused by an activity and not a condition of the property itself, which is a prerequisite for premises liability. Since the fight that harmed Jones was not the result of a physical defect or condition of the property, premises liability was inappropriate.

The third theory is negligence per se, which provides that violation of a statute is conclusive proof of negligence. Jones argues that two Lewiston ordinances apply. The first states that sidewalks should be free of debris or obstructions/impediments of whatsoever kind. The second ordinance prohibits bars from selling alcohol to individuals already intoxicated. The Court deals with both.

The first ordinance is rejected as a basis for negligence per se because "there is no indication that a group of people that happen to be standing on the sidewalk was meant to be included as an 'obstruction' or 'impediment' under the ordinance" and that it would be "unreasonable" for the Idaho Supreme Court to conclude otherwise.

The second ordinance is also rejected because Jones presented no evidence that the unknown assailant was already intoxicated or that Boomers served him alcohol with the knowledge that the assailant was intoxicated. Therefore, there was no duty.

The final theory alleged by Jones is public nuisance. Jones claimed that the group of people, specifically the assailant, constituted an "offensive instrumentality" which Boomers had a duty to remove. The Court says no to this argument because there was no evidence that Boomers "had control of the people on the sidewalk or street where the incident occurred."

The appeal seemed to be a real stretch of legal principles governing negligence. Had Jones patronized Boomers, perhaps the result would have been different. However, he was part of a brawl on a public causeway and never established that Boomers had any real role in causing the brawl. Therefore, the Court's decision is right on point.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court-- Hill v. American Family Mutual Insurance Company

Hill v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co. is a fairly landmark decision in the realm of Idaho insurance law. It is a 3-2 decision authored by Justice Warren Jones reversing the district judge.

The facts involve a car-wreck in November 2005. Hill was involved in a car accident with Andrea Hamilton. Andrea was 15 years old, talking on a cell phone and drifted into oncoming traffic, hitting Hill's car. Hill suffered some significant injuries.

Andrea's insurance policy had a bodily-injury coverage limit of $25,000. Hill had a underinsured-motorist (UIM) policy of $100,000/person. Hill's policy with American Family included an "exhaustion" clause, requiring her to deplete the bodily-injury policy of a tortfeasor before being able to collect UIM benefits.

Hill filed suit against Hamilton and eventually settled for $24,000. She then went to American Family and sought $18,000, an amount crediting the difference between the settlement amount and Andrea's policy limit. American Family denied Hill's claim because she had not exhausted the bodily-injury policy of the tortfeasor. Hill then sued American Family.

American Family moved for summary judgment. Judge Stephen Dunn, of Bannock County, granted American Family's motion, finding that the exhaustion clause was unambiguous and barred recovery since Hill had not exhausted the bodily-injury policy of the tortfeasor.

The Idaho Supreme Court reverses Judge Dunn on the basis that exhaustion clauses violate Idaho public policy. This case constitutes a dramatic change. The Idaho Supreme Court bases its rationale on the fact that the Idaho legislature recently passed Idaho Code Section 41-2502, requiring insurance companies to offer UIM coverage with insurance policies. The Idaho Supreme Court finds that this enactment implements a public policy with regard to the exhaustion clauses and voids the clauses as against that new policy.

So, the realities of the Court's decision is that plaintiffs are no longer required to fully-exhaust the bodily-injury policies of the tortfeasor. Instead, plaintiffs can settle with the tortfeasors and then seek payment from their own UIM policy. Of course, the Idaho Supreme Court states that plaintiffs must "absorb the gap", if any, between the settlement with the tortfeasor and the recovery from the UIM policy. So, in the subject case, since Hill settled for $24,000 out of a $25,000 bodily-injury policy, her recovery from the UIM policy is going to be credited $1,000. She has to absorb the gap of her decision to settle for less than the full policy.

The Court also considers the "when" of public policy. Idaho has not clearly stated how a court should evaluate public policy in terms of timing. In this case, the accident happened in 2005. The new law governing UIM insurance was passed in 2008. The statute is not retroactive and it is widely held that contracts are interpreted based on the law at the time the contract is entered into. However, the Court clearly states that a contemporary change to public policy can have the effect of "eviscerating" a contract. The Court states that it will not enforce contracts "at any stage" of litigation in which it contravenes public policy.

This is a substantial decision for the Idaho Supreme Court because it does not just affect insurance contracts. For example, prior to 2008, the public policy in Idaho disfavored non-competition agreements. They were rarely enforced, if ever. In 2008, the legislature passed a new statute stating that non-competes are presumptively enforceable. This changed the public policy of the state. Under the logic in the Hill decision, non-competition agreements entered into before 2008 cannot be voided on the basis that they are against public policy. This is because the public policy changed in 2008. Even though the Court uses the public policy concept to void a contractual provision, the inverse should also be true in order for there to be any consistency to the Court's ruling. That is to say that contracts previously void for public policy reasons can now be found to be enforceable if there is a subsequent change in public policy.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Idaho Supreme Court--Wanner v. State/IDOT

The Idaho Supreme Court issued a decision today in Wanner v. State. Mr. Wanner had been arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and had his license suspended. He received a Notice of Suspension from the State but did not ask for an administrative review hearing within 7 days of receiving the Notice. So, the State denied his request. Wanner filed a petition for judicial review and Judge Nye, in Bannock County, agreed with Mr. Wanner. Judge Nye stayed the suspension pending an administrative review hearing and the State appealed Judge Nye's decision.

The Idaho Supreme Court unanimously reverses Judge Nye on the basis that Wanner never complied with the timeliness requirements of Idaho Code Section 18-8002A, seeking administrative review of the driver's license suspension ruling. This waived Wanner's right to seek judicial review. The Idaho Supreme Court remands with an order to the district court to vacate its decision and lift the stay of the suspension of Wanner's license.