Justia Alabama Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Procedure
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The issue this case presented for the Alabama Supreme Court's review centered on whether, under the terms of a particular trust instrument, a person adopted as an adult was considered a lineal descendant of a beneficiary of the trust and, thus, a beneficiary. James Parris, G.D. Varn III, James V. Searse, Jr., and Samuel S. Parris appealed a partial summary judgment in favor of Phyllis Ballantine, Scott Harrison and Renee DuPont Harrison. The siblings argued that the use of the phrase "hereafter born" in defining "lineal descendants" in the 1971 trust implied that "adopted" descendants were excluded and demonstrated the trustors' intent that the 1971 trust benefit biological descendants only. The siblings also asserted the trustors defined "lineal descendants" in a manner different than the generic legal definition, while they defined "heirs" as all persons entitled to take by intestacy -– the primary, generic legal meaning. The Alabama Supreme Court found that at the time the 1971 trust was executed, there was no provision in the law authorizing the adoption of adults. "Although the Alabama Legislature enacted the Adult Adoption Act in 1973 authorizing the adoption of an adult for inheritance purposes, that act came into being two years after the 1971 trust was executed. ... [T]hose Code sections were repealed effective January 1, 1991, and replaced by the Alabama Adoption Code, section 26-10A-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975. Accordingly, the probate court's judgment was affirmed on grounds that the law at the time the 1971 trust was executed did not allow adult adoption, that Samuel's adoption as an adult in 2016 did not make him a "lineal descendant" as that term was defined in the 1971 trust, and that, therefore, Samuel was not a beneficiary of the trust. View "Parris v. Ballantine et al." on Justia Law

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QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise ("QHG"), appealed a circuit court's judgment awarding Amy Pertuit ("Amy") $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages. Leif Pertuit ("Leif") had been married to Deanna Mortensen; they had one child, Logan. Leif and Mortensen divorced in 2007. At some point, Mortensen was awarded sole physical custody of Logan, and Leif was awarded visitation. Leif later married Amy, a nurse. At the time of their marriage, Leif and Amy resided in Mobile, Alabama, and Mortensen resided in Enterprise. Eventually, tensions arose between Leif and Mortensen regarding the issue of visitation. In March 2014, Mortensen began sending text messages to Leif accusing Amy of being addicted to drugs. Around that time, Mortensen visited the attorney who had represented her in divorce from Leif. Mortensen expressed concern that Logan was in danger as a result of the visitation arrangement and asked her attorney to assist with obtaining a modification of Leif's visitation. In April 2014, Mortensen contacted Dr. Kathlyn Diefenderfer, a physician whom QHG employed as a hospitalist at Medical Center Enterprise. Mortensen had been Dr. Diefenderfer's patient, and Dr. Diefenderfer's son played sports with Logan. Mortensen informed Dr. Diefenderfer that Logan was scheduled to ride in an automobile with Amy from Enterprise to Mobile for Leif's visitation and expressed concern regarding Amy's ability to drive, given her belief that Amy was using drugs and had lost her nursing license. Dr. Diefenderfer used a hospital computer to check on Amy's drug prescriptions. After reviewing that information,Dr. Diefenderfer told Mortensen: "All I can tell you is I would not put my son in the car." Mortensen went back to her attorney, informing him that Dr. Diefenderfer had acquired the necessary proof of Amy's drug use. Amy received a copy of the modification petition, and was convinced her private health information had been obtained in violation of HIPAA, and filed complaints to the Enterprise Police Department, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Alabama Bar Association, and the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. A grand jury indicted Mortensen and Dr. Diefenderfer, which were later recalled, but the two entered diversion agreements with the district attorney's office. Amy then filed suit alleging negligence and wantonness, violation of her right to privacy, the tort of outrage and conspiracy. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the trial court erred by denying QHG's motion for a judgment as a matter of law with respect to Amy's asserted theories of respondeat superior; ratification; and negligent and wanton training, supervision, and retention because there was not substantial evidence indicating that QHG was liable to Amy as a consequence of Dr. Diefenderfer's conduct under any of those theories. The trial court's judgment awarding Amy $5,000 in compensatory damages and $295,000 in punitive damages was reversed, and judgment rendered in favor of QHG. View "QHG of Enterprise, Inc., d/b/a Medical Center Enterprise v. Pertuit" on Justia Law

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Two appeals were consolidated for the purposes of this opinion: case no. 1180675 ("the Lowndes County case"), the State appealed the Lowndes Circuit Court's order granting the motions to dismiss filed by Epic Tech, LLC; White Hall Enrichment Advancement Team d/b/a Southern Star Entertainment; White Hall Entertainment; and the White Hall Town Council (collectively, "the Lowndes County defendants"); case no. 1180794 ("the Macon County case"), the State appealed the Macon Circuit Court's order granting the motions to dismiss filed by Epic Tech, LLC, and K.C. Economic Development, LLC, d/b/a VictoryLand Casino ("KCED")(collectively, "the Macon County defendants"). In 2017, the State sued the Lowndes County defendants asserting a public-nuisance claim. In a second amended complaint, the State asserted it was seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to abate a public nuisance of unlawful gambling through continued operation of illegal slot machines and other "unlawful gambling devices." The Lowndes County defendants moved to dismiss, raising, amongst other defenses, that the State failed to join the operators of two Wind Creek casinos. The Lowndes Circuit Court ultimately granted the motion to dismiss, finding it did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to grant the relief the State requested. The State also sued defendants in Macon County Circuit court, again alleging public nuisance from operation of illegal slot machines. Again, the State requested declaratory and injunctive relief. The Macon County court likewise dismissed on grounds it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction.The State argued on appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court that the circuit courts erred in concluding they lacked subject matter jurisdiction over their respective cases. The Supreme Court concurred with the State and reversed the circuit courts. The matters were remanded for further proceedings. View "Alabama v. Epic Tech, LLC, et al." on Justia Law

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Regina Hannah appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Michael Naughton, M.D.; Michael Naughton, M.D., Ph.D., LLC; Terisa Thomas, M.D., and and Terisa A. Thomas, M.D., P.C. (collectively, "the defendants"), on Hannah's claims alleging medical malpractice. In 2005, Hannah was seen by Dr. Thomas, a board-certified general surgeon, for a female health-care examination. Hannah was 32 years old at the time, and complained of fatigue, weight gain, heavy menstrual cycles, cramping, and painful sexual relations. Hannah also reported a significant family medical history of cervical cancer and stated that she was fearful of getting cancer. Hannah stated that her mother, grandmother, and sister had suffered from cervical cancer. Dr. Thomas ordered a number of tests, including a pelvic ultrasound and a Pap smear. Dr. Thomas received the results of Hannah's Pap smear, which indicated an "abnormal" result: "Epithelial Cell Abnormality. Atypical Squamous Cells Cannot Exclude High Grade Squamous Intraepithelial Lesion (HSIL)." Dr. Thomas stated that this was not a diagnosis of cancer but, rather, that she considered it an abnormal finding indicative of an "increased risk" of cancer. Dr. Thomas related to Dr. Naughton that she had a patient she wanted to refer to him for a second opinion following an abnormal Pap smear. Dr. Naughton testified that Hannah chose the most aggressive option for treatment, specifically stating that she wanted "it all out:" a hysterectomy, including her ovaries. Dr. Naughton had Hannah execute a "surgical-awareness" form indicating that she accepted full responsibility for her decision to have the surgery. Hannah underwent surgery; there was no indication of any diagnosis of cervical cancer mentioned in the surgical record. Hannah's surgery was completed without complication. Hannah would have one more follow up appointment with Dr. Naughton; she also met with Dr. Thomas. Frustrated with a lack of response from additional calls to Dr. Naughton's office, Hannah consulted with Dr. Max Austin, a gynecologic oncologist. After review of her medical records, Dr. Austin told Hannah she "never had nor did she have cervical cancer." Hannah then filed suit against Drs. Thomas and Naughton, alleging they breached their standard of care by falsely informing her she had cervical cancer based on the abnormal Pap-smear, and by advising her to undergo a hysterectomy. The Alabama Supreme Court found no reversible error in the trial court's judgment and affirmed it. View "Hannah v. Naughton, M.D., et al." on Justia Law

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Deitrick Bryant ("Deitrick") committed suicide in his cell while he was an inmate at the Greene County, Alabama jail. Deitrick's mother, as the administrator of his estate, sued two jail employees, alleging that their negligence allowed Deitrick's suicide to happen. The trial court entered a summary judgment in favor of the jail employees, and Deitrick's mother appealed. "The controlling factor in determining whether there may be a recovery for a failure to prevent a suicide is whether the defendants reasonably should have anticipated that the deceased would attempt to harm himself." The Alabama Supreme Court determined Bryant failed to put forth evidence that would allow a factfinder to conclude that jail staff could have anticipated Deitrick's suicide. Accordingly, the summary judgment entered by the trial court was affirmed. View "Bryant v. Carpenter" on Justia Law

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Protective Life Insurance Company ("Protective") appealed a circuit court judgment entered on a jury verdict against Protective and in favor of Apex Parks Group, LLC ("Apex"), in the amount of $11,495,890.41. Apex, a California-based corporation, owned and operated 16 moderately sized amusement parks, water parks, and family-entertainment centers nationwide. Apex's founder and chief executive officer was Alexander Weber, who had possessed 43 years' experience in the industry and who was critical to Apex's success. Because of Weber's importance, in early 2016 Apex sought a "key-man" insurance policy on Weber. Protective is a Birmingham-based insurance company owned by the Dai-ichi Corporation. At that time, Weber was 64 years old. Answers from Weber's interview with a paramedical examiner were incorporated into the Apex application for insurance. Weber underwent a series of medical examinations, all of which were reported and incorporated into the key-man policy. In November 2016, after the first premium payment was made and the policy went into effect, while on vacation with his wife, Weber died. Shortly after Weber's death, Apex submitted its claim under the policy for the $10-million benefit. Protective then began a contestable-claim investigation, contending Weber's complete medical history was not disclosed, thereby voiding the policy. Protective thereafter refunded the premium Apex paid. Apex sued Protective asserting claims of breach of contract and bad faith in failing to investigate all bases supporting coverage and in making false promises that the claim would be paid. After review, the Alabama Supreme Court determined Protective was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Apex's claim of breach of contract, and the trial court erred by submitting this claim to the jury for consideration. Accordingly, that portion of the trial court judgment was reversed. "Because Protective demonstrated that Weber made a material misrepresentation and Apex failed to introduce substantial evidence to the contrary, Protective was entitled to rescind the policy, which was a complete defense to Apex's claims of breach of contract. Thus, the trial court erred in denying Protective's motions for a judgment as a matter of law." View "Protective Life Insurance Company v. Apex Parks Group, LLC" on Justia Law

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Virginia McDorman, conservator for Sim Moseley, appealed a probate court judgment awarding Ralph Moseley, Jr., attorney fees pursuant to the Alabama Litigation Accountability Act ("the ALAA"). Sim had a brother, Ralph Carmichael Moseley III ("Mike"), who was born during the marriage of Virginia and Ralph. Sim also had a half brother, Slate McDorman, who was born during the marriage of Virginia and her current husband, Clarence McDorman, Jr. In February 2013, Mike, as brother and next friend of Sim, petitioned the probate court to remove Virginia as Sim's conservator; among other things, he asked Ralph be appointed as successor conservator, and asked for an accounting of the conservatorship. During the pendency of the proceeding, a dispute arose about an IRA Ralph created and funded for Sim's benefit. During discovery, Virginia requested Ralph produce proof of contributions he made to the IRA; Ralph denied an IRA was established. Virginia submitted an accounting, along with a "Settlement Agreement" executed by Sim and by Virginia as conservator releasing Ralph from any and all claims related directly or indirectly to Ralph's funding or removing funds from the IRA Ralph attempted for Sim. Virginia also filed an affidavit signed by Ralph stating he agreed to withdraw any request that Virginia be removed as conservator for Sim's estate and affirming that his payment of $5,000 pursuant to the agreement was in exchange for a full release of all claims against him. In December 2015, more than a year and a half after the agreement and Ralph's affidavit were executed, Virginia and Sim moved to set aside the agreement, alleging Ralph had fraudulently induced them to execute the agreement by failing to truthfully answer discovery and by withholding information about the IRA. They stated Ralph closed the IRA and filed a fraudulent tax return on behalf of Sim, listing the IRA distribution as income, causing Sim to owe federal taxes and impacting his qualification for various governmental disability benefits. Ralph responded that Virginia and Sim were aware of the IRA when they signed the agreement; Ralph requested attorney fees he incurred as a result of responding to and opposing the motion to set aside the agreement. The Alabama Supreme Court determined an award of attorney fees relating to to defending the validity of the agreement in the probate court action was not erroneous; the Court reversed the probate court's amount of fees, remanding the issue for a determination of the appropriate amount of fees attributable to defending the validity of the agreement in the probate court action. In all other respects, the Court affirmed the judgment in favor of Ralph. View "McDorman v. Moseley, Jr." on Justia Law

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Kathleen Hendrix ("Hendrix"), as administratrix of the estate of Kenneth Morris Hendrix, deceased, appeals a circuit court judgment dismissing Hendrix's medical-malpractice wrongful-death claim against United Healthcare Insurance Company of the River Valley ("United"). Kenneth, who was covered by a health-insurance policy issued by United, died after United refused to pay for a course of medical treatment recommended by Kenneth's treating physician. The trial court determined that Hendrix's claim was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), because the claim "relate[s] to" the ERISA-governed employee-benefit plan pursuant to which United had issued Kenneth's health-insurance policy. In October 2015, Kenneth was injured in an automobile accident. His physician recommended Kenneth be admitted to an inpatient-rehabilitation facility. Hendrix claimed United "imposed itself as [Kenneth's] health care provider, took control of [Kenneth's] medical care, and made a medical treatment decision that [Kenneth] should not receive further treatment, rehabilitation, and care at an inpatient facility." Instead, Hendrix contended United made the decision Kenneth should have been discharged to his home to receive a lower quality of care than had been ordered by his physicians. Kenneth died on October 25, 2015, due to a pulmonary thromboembolism, which, the complaint asserts, would not have occurred had United approved inpatient rehabilitation. The Alabama Supreme Court concurred with the circuit court that Hendrix's claim related to an ERISA-governed benefit plan, and thus preempted by the ERISA statute. View "Hendrix v. United Healthcare Insurance Company of the River Valley" on Justia Law

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Advanced Disposal Services South, LLC, Advanced Disposal Services Alabama Holdings, LLC, Advanced Disposal Services, Inc., Tallassee Waste Disposal Center, Inc., and Stone's Throw Landfill, LLC (collectively, "Advanced Disposal"), petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to order the Macon Circuit Court ("the trial court") to dismiss, an action filed by Jerry Tarver, Sr., because, they claimed, the action cannot proceed in the absence of the City of Tallassee ("the City") as a party. In May 2017, Tarver sued Advanced Disposal, the utilities board, and fictitiously named defendants seeking monetary damages as well as injunctive relief for exposure to allegedly contaminated water that had been illegally "discharged" into the river and ultimately sold by the utilities board for consumption by its customers. The complaint alleged Advanced Disposal unlawfully discharged its leachate into the City's stabilization pond, knowing that the leachate could not be properly treated before the resulting effluent was discharged into the river. Tarver also alleged Advanced Disposal discharged "pollutants" into various creeks and tributaries flowing into the river in violation of its storm-water discharge permit. The Alabama Supreme Court denied relief, finding that this action could proceed in equity and good conscience without the City. "The City's role in the underlying dispute potentially makes the City a joint tortfeasor with Advanced Disposal, the utilities board, and MCWA; it does not, however, make the City an indispensable party under the particular facts of this case." View "Ex parte Advanced Disposal Services South, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Alabama Supreme Court granted Mid-Century Insurance Company permission to appeal the denial of its motion for a partial summary judgment in an action seeking underinsured-motorist benefits filed by Rodney Watts, as the personal representative of the estate of his wife Leiah Watts, deceased, and others (collectively, "the Watts plaintiffs"). In 2016, Leiah Watts, Caiden Watts, Jackson Watts, Faye Howard, Mary Adair, Evelyn Watts, Tammy McBurnett, Renee Stone, and Victoria Stone were traveling in a 2014 Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle when it was struck by a vehicle driven by Wiley "Pete" Whitworth. The collision killed Leiah Watts, Faye Howard, Mary Adair, and Evelyn Watts. Tammy McBurnett, Renee Stone, Caiden Watts, Jackson Watts, and Victoria Stone suffered serious injuries in the collision. The Watts vehicle was insured by a policy of insurance issued by Farmers Insurance Exchange to Rodney Watts, underwritten by Mid-Century. Mid-Century contended that, because the policy allowed for the stacking of up to three UIM coverages, the maximum amount of UIM benefits available under the policy for the accident in this case was $300,000, based on $100,000 per accident. The Watts plaintiffs contended that each of the nine occupants of the Watts vehicle involved in the accident (or his/her personal representative) was entitled to $150,000 in UIM benefits ($50,000 per person limit of the occupied vehicle plus the per person limit of $50,000 for two additional coverages under the stacking provision of the policy). Thus, the total sought by Rodney in UIM benefits was $1,350,000 (9 x $150,000). The case was removed to federal district court, and the federal court granted Mid-Century's motion to dismiss in part, granting the motion as to fraud claims as to Farmers Insurance Exchange and Mid-Century. The court dismissed without prejudice claims of breach of contract and bad faith on ripeness grounds. The Alabama Supreme Court determined the Watts plaintiffs were unable to stack more than three coverages under the uninsured-motorist statute and insurance policy, and the fact that they could not do so did not render the coverage under the policy illusory. The Court reversed the trial court's order denying Mid-Century's motion for a partial summary judgment as to the UIM claim and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Mid-Century Insurance Company v. Watts" on Justia Law