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Clark v. Neese

Supreme Court of Mississippi

December 12, 2013

Kathryn Schroeder CLARK, with Power of Attorney for Helen Schroeder
v.
Lisa Younger NEESE, Administratrix of the Estate of Harry L. Schroeder, Deceased.

Rehearing Denied Feb. 20, 2014.

Page 557

Dunbar Dowdy Watt, Wayne Dowdy, Magnolia, attorneys for appellant.

Norma Carr Ruff, Dan W. Webb, Tupelo, attorneys for appellee.

Before DICKINSON, P.J., PIERCE and COLEMAN, JJ.

DICKINSON, Presiding Justice.

¶ 1. Helen Schroeder was a passenger in an automobile being driven by her husband, Harry Schroeder, when a log truck collided with the rear of the automobile, killing Harry and severely injuring Helen, who, since the accident, has substantially diminished mental capacity. In a federal lawsuit, Helen— both individually and as one of Harry's wrongful-death beneficiaries— claimed the truck driver was at fault and denied that Harry was negligent. After the federal judge denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment, Helen settled the federal suit. Helen then sued Harry's estate in state court, claiming Harry was partially at fault. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the estate based on the doctrine of judicial estoppel. But, because the federal judge stated his denial of summary judgment was based on his finding of genuine issues of material fact as to the truck driver's negligence, not " Harry Schroeder's potential contributory negligence," we reverse.

Page 558

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. A log truck driven by Royce Sullivan collided with the rear of an automobile driven by Harry Schroeder, who had just pulled his car onto a highway in Lowndes County. Harry died as a result of the accident, and his wife, Helen— who was a passenger in her husband's car— suffered severe injuries, permanent disability, and diminished mental capacity.

¶ 3. Helen— both individually, and as one of Harry's wrongful-death beneficiaries— sued Sullivan in federal court, alleging that Sullivan's negligence had caused Harry's death and her permanent disability. In requests for admission, Sullivan asked Helen to admit that Harry's negligence had caused the accident. Helen denied negligence on the part of her husband and stated that, but for Sullivan's negligence, Harry safely could have entered the highway.

¶ 4. Sullivan moved for summary judgment at the close of discovery, arguing that the uncontradicted evidence established Harry's negligence as the sole cause of the accident. In denying summary judgment, the federal judge stated that the evidence created a jury question as to Sullivan's fault, and that " plaintiffs do not appear to dispute Harry Schroeder's potential contributory negligence." The parties settled and agreed to a release of claims, and the district court dismissed the case.

¶ 5. Then, Kathryn Schroeder, with power of attorney for and on behalf of Helen Schroeder, filed suit against the Estate of Harry Schroeder in the Circuit Court of Lowndes County, alleging that Harry negligently had failed to yield the right of way and had pulled in front of Sullivan's log truck at an extremely slow rate of speed, causing the accident which resulted in Helen's permanent disability.

¶ 6. The estate moved for summary judgment, arguing that Helen had pleaded facts in her complaint materially different from those she had asserted in the federal district court. The estate claimed that Helen's circuit-court complaint directly contradicted her responses to the requests for admission in federal court, and that the trial court should grant summary judgment based on the doctrines of judicial and equitable estoppel. The estate further argued that the settlement and release of claims in federal court barred the circuit-court action under the doctrines of accord and satisfaction, release, and merger.

¶ 7. Helen responded that judicial and equitable estoppel could not bar the present action because the parties were not adverse in the prior action and because any change in her theory of the case resulted from information she had learned during discovery in the federal-court case. Helen explained that she had instituted the federal action under the belief that Sullivan was solely at fault, but she had learned of her husband's contributory negligence during discovery. ...


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