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Jackson v. Brown

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 1, 2017

ROBERT PAUL JACKSON, and THE JOELYNN FAMILY PRESERVATION TRUST, Petitioners
v.
PAMELA S. BROWN, as Administratrix of the Estate of Harry Edward Myer, Jr., Respondent

          Submitted: May 23, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Ritchie County The Honorable Timothy L. Sweeney, Judge Civil Action No. 14-C-36

          David A. Mohler, Esq. Joshua A. Johnson, Esq. Bowles Rice LLP Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for Petitioners

          Rodney C. Windom., Esq. Scott A. Windom, Esq. Windom Law Offices PLLC Harrisville, West Virginia Counsel for Respondent

         SYLLABUS

         1. West Virginia Code § 44D-10-1010(c) [2011], contained in the West Virginia Uniform Trust Act, provides that a claim based on a tort committed by a trustee in the course of administering a trust may be asserted in a judicial proceeding against the trustee in the trustee's fiduciary capacity, whether or not the trustee is personally liable for the claim.

         2. To the extent this Court's prior rulings in Massey v. Payne, 109 W.Va. 529, 155 S.E. 658 (1930), and Marion v. Chandler, 139 W.Va. 596, 81 S.E.2d 89 (1954), conflict with W.Va. Code §§ 44D-10-1010(b) and (c) [2011], those cases are overruled.

          KETCHUM JUSTICE.

         The defendants below, Robert Paul Jackson ("Defendant Jackson") and the Joelynn Family Preservation Trust ("the Trust"), appeal from the July 6, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Ritchie County denying their motion for a new trial following a jury verdict of $543, 202.17 in favor of Plaintiff Pamela S. Brown ("plaintiff") in a wrongful death action arising from an automobile accident. On appeal, Defendant Jackson asserts that the circuit court erred by: 1) granting summary judgment to the plaintiff on the issue of Defendant Jackson's liability for causing the automobile accident; 2) denying his post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law[1] on the issue of whether the Trust was liable for Defendant Jackson's tort; and 3) incorrectly awarding prejudgment interest on an award for lost wages.

         After review, we affirm the circuit court's summary judgment ruling on the issue of Defendant Jackson's liability. However, we reverse the circuit court's denial of Defendant Jackson's post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of the Trust's liability. Our review reveals that Defendant Jackson was not "in the course of administering" the Trust when the automobile accident occurred. Therefore, under W.Va. Code § 44D-10-1010(c) [2011], contained in the West Virginia Uniform Trust Code, the Trust is not liable for Defendant Jackson's tort. Finally, we affirm the circuit court's award of prejudgment interest on the plaintiff's lost wages damage award.

         I.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On the morning of June 7, 2014, Defendant Jackson drove a 1999 Ford F- 350 flat-bed truck[2] to a restaurant in Ritchie County, West Virginia, where he ate breakfast. Following breakfast, Defendant Jackson went to an Ace Hardware Store in Ritchie County where he purchased "six or seven joints of plastic pipe" that he was planning to install "in the ground as a French drain to get water away (from the residence that he lived in)." After loading the plastic pipes into his truck, Defendant Jackson drove a short distance before coming to a stop at the intersection of Ritchie Industrial Park Road and U.S. Route 50.

          U.S. Route 50 is a four-lane divided highway. Defendant Jackson's truck was perpendicular to Route 50 as he was stopped at the intersection. His plan was to drive straight across the two eastbound lanes and make a left turn to merge into the westbound lanes of Route 50. Defendant Jackson testified that before attempting to drive his truck across the eastbound lanes of Route 50, he looked to his left and noticed a semi-truck coming toward him. Believing that he had enough time to clear the two eastbound lanes in front of the semi-truck, Defendant Jackson proceeded into the eastbound lanes of the highway. However, Defendant Jackson did not see a motorcycle that was also traveling eastbound on Route 50 that was being driven by the decedent, Harry Myer, Jr. ("Decedent Myer").[3]

         Decedent Myer was traveling in the right or slow eastbound lane of Route 50 when Defendant Jackson's truck entered the highway. Though Decedent Myer applied his brakes, as evidenced by skid marks in the slow lane of Route 50, he crashed his motorcycle into the left rear quarter panel of Defendant Jackson's truck. The collision occurred in the right or slow eastbound lane. Decedent Myer was injured and later died at the scene of the accident as a result of the injuries he suffered in the crash.

         Following the crash, the West Virginia State Police conducted an investigation. A West Virginia State Policeman, Corporal J.L. Brewer, completed a "Uniform Traffic Crash Report" in which he determined that Defendant Jackson "failed to yield the right of way" at the intersection in violation of W.Va. Code § 17C-9-1. Corporal Brewer's report provided that the crash occurred in the right eastbound lane of Route 50 near the hash marks that divide the slow and fast lanes. Further, the report concluded that Decedent Myer did not commit any traffic violations. The complete narrative description contained in the report describing the accident is as follows:

[Decedent Myer's motorcycle] was traveling east bound on U.S. Route 50. [Defendant Jackson's truck] was coming from Ace Hardware and sitting at the intersection of Ritchie County Industrial Park Road and U.S. Route 50. As [Decedent Myer's motorcycle] was approaching the Ritchie County Industrial Park Road intersection, [Defendant Jackson] pulled [his truck] onto U.S. Route 50 causing [Decedent Myer's motorcycle] to collide into the left rear quarter panel of [Defendant Jackson's truck]. [Decedent Myer's] motorcycle collided with [Defendant Jackson's truck] in the east bound driving lane of U.S. Route 50 near the passing hash marks.
[Decedent Myer] applied [the motorcycle's] brakes approximately 89 feet before colliding with [Defendant Jackson's truck].

         The plaintiff, Pamela Brown, as Administratrix of Decedent Myer's estate, filed a wrongful death action against Defendant Jackson in September of 2014. During Defendant Jackson's deposition, the plaintiff learned about the existence of the Joelynn Family Preservation Trust.[4] Defendant Jackson testified that he created this Trust, that he was a trustee, and that the three Trust beneficiaries are his sister, Judith Basile, and his two adult children, Jessica Jackson and Joseph Jackson. Additionally, Defendant Jackson testified that the house that he resides in is owned by the Trust.

         After Defendant Jackson's deposition, the plaintiff amended her complaint and named the Joelynn Family Preservation Trust as an additional defendant. The plaintiff's amended complaint alleged that Defendant Jackson was acting "as a Trustee and agent for . . . the Joelynn Family Preservation Trust" when he purchased the plastic pipe at the hardware store for the "sole purpose of benefitting [the Trust] by improving real estate owned by, and titled to the Trust."

         On February 1, 2016, the plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment "on the issue of liability." Specifically, the plaintiff argued that she was entitled to summary judgment on the issue of Defendant Jackson's liability based on the following: 1) Defendant Jackson pulled into the path of Decedent Myer in the right lane of Route 50; 2) Decedent Myer had the right-of-way while traveling in the right lane and Defendant Jackson failed to yield to oncoming traffic; 3) Corporal Brewer's report concluded that Decedent Myer had not committed any traffic violations, and cited Defendant Jackson for failing to yield the right-of-way at the intersection; 4) an expert witness, testifying on behalf of the plaintiff, testified that Defendant Jackson caused the accident by pulling onto Route 50 and failing to yield to Decedent Myer's motorcycle; that Decedent Myer reacted within 2.8 seconds when Defendant Jackson pulled onto the highway; and that Decedent Myer "was alert and attentive and that he did . . . respond to the movement of the truck out into the intersection;" and 5) Defendant Jackson did not offer any expert testimony to rebut the plaintiff's expert's conclusion that Defendant Jackson's act of negligently pulling onto the highway and failing to yield to oncoming traffic caused the accident.

         Defendant Jackson opposed this motion, arguing that the jury should be allowed to consider Decedent Myer's comparative fault. In support of this argument, Defendant Jackson argued that the motorcycle's skid marks started in the middle of the right lane and proceeded toward the "lane-dividing lines." However, the skid marks remained in the motorcycle's lane of travel. Essentially, Defendant Jackson argued that because the skid marks demonstrated that Decedent Myer's motorcycle traveled from the middle of the right lane toward the left edge of the right lane, the jury should decide "whether [Decedent] Myer acted as a reasonably prudent person . . . by swerving left instead of right and possibly avoiding the collision."

         The circuit court granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on liability. The circuit court's detailed order explains:

It is undisputed that [Decedent] Myer had the right-of-way while traveling on U.S. Route 50 and had the right to operate his vehicle in the entirety of his lane of travel; and, that Defendant Robert Paul Jackson had the duty to yield to oncoming traffic while he was stopped on Ritchie County Industrial Park Road, waiting to cross the eastbound lanes of U.S. Route 50.
The physical evidence, the results of the crash investigation by West Virginia State Police . . . and the sworn deposition testimony of Plaintiff's expert witness crash re-constructionist . . . who is the only crash expert witness identified by the parties-conclude that [Decedent Myer] was lawfully traveling at or below the posted speed limit in the right hand, eastbound lane of U.S. Route[.]
The undisputed physical and sworn deposition testimony . . . showed Defendant Jackson pulled across both eastbound lanes of U.S. Route 50 . . . in the face of oncoming traffic in a futile effort to safely reach the westbound lanes of the four-lane highway. . . .
Defendant Jackson breached his duty to yield the right-of-way to the oncoming motorist [Decedent] Myer and caused Mr. Myer to crash his motorcycle[.] . . .
Defendant Jackson has produced no expert witness to offer testimony and opinion which would contradict the findings and opinions of Plaintiff's expert crash reconstructionist[.] . . . In this regard, expert testimony is required because the subject of inquiry is one involving special skills or training not common to the ordinary person.

         In a separate order, the circuit court denied a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Jackson regarding the Trust's liability. Defendant Jackson argued that while he "could be held personally liable for the damages resulting from the collision, " the plaintiff did not present any evidence that Defendant Jackson acted with the "sanction of the Trust beneficiaries and under the Trust beneficiaries' supervision and control at the time of the accident." Therefore, he argued the Trust could not be held liable. The circuit court denied this motion, ruling:

There exists a genuine issue of material fact, in that the jury may find that on June 7, 2014, [Defendant] Jackson was acting on behalf of the Joelynn Family Trust when he traveled to Ace Hardware to purchase a pipe for a French Drain, which was to be installed at property which was owned by the Joelynn Family Trust.

         On May 11, 2016, a jury trial began on the issue of damages and on the Trust's liability. At the close of the plaintiff's case, counsel for Defendant Jackson moved for a directed verdict regarding the Trust's liability. The circuit court denied this motion, stating that the Trust beneficiaries were "around some while this work was being performed [on Defendant Jackson's residence] and they had been in the loop" on matters regarding Trust property. The circuit court therefore ruled that the issue of the Trust's liability should be decided by the jury.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $543, 202.17.[5] The jury was also asked: "Do you find that Robert Paul Jackson was acting as an agent of the Joelynn Family Preservation Trust when he killed Harry Edward Myer, Jr.?" The jury answered this question in the affirmative.

         Defendant Jackson filed post-trial motions requesting that the circuit court reverse its summary judgment ruling on Defendant Jackson's liability, enter judgment as a matter of law that the Trust was not liable for Defendant Jackson's action, or, in the alternative, order a new trial on the Trust's liability based upon the court's refusal to properly instruct the jury regarding a trustee's liability. The circuit court denied these motions by order entered on July 6, 2016. Defendant Jackson subsequently filed the instant appeal.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This case involves assignments of error related to the circuit court's rulings on three diverse issues to which different standards of review apply. The standards of review specific to the issues raised will be discussed in the Analysis section of this Opinion.

         III.

...


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