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TRK, LLC v. Myles

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

March 2, 2017

TRK, LLC d/b/a TIMBER RIDGE TOWNHOUSE APARTMENTS, B&B MANAGEMENT GROUP, LLC AND TARA BURNSIDE
v.
VIVIAN MYLES, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES OF ENRIQUE L. MYLES, DECEASED AND/OR LJW., A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HER MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND, JANNA WARNSLEY

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/02/2014

         HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT TRIAL HON. WINSTON L. KIDD JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JAMES ASHLEY OGDEN WENDY LOONEY JAMES W. SMITH, JR. BERNARD C. JONES, JR. MICHAEL FRANKLIN HELD

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: JAMES GRADY WYLY, III MICHAEL FRANKLIN HELD ADAM B. HARRIS

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: JAMES ASHLEY OGDEN JAMES W. SMITH, JR. BERNARD C. JONES, JR. SHANNON M. JONES ASHLEY JONES MOSLEY

          DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         ¶1. After Enrique Myles's death, his mother-Vivian Myles-filed this wrongful-death suit. Later, the parties became aware Enrique was survived by a minor child-LJW. Rather than dismissing the case for lack of standing, as requested by the defendant, the circuit judge allowed LJW to be substituted as the plaintiff. This interlocutory appeal of that decision followed, raising two related questions. First, when a decedent is survived by his child, does the decedent's mother have standing to file a wrongful-death action? Second, if not, must the circuit judge dismiss the complaint, or may the circuit judge remedy the lack of standing by substituting the child as plaintiff?

         ¶2. Because Mississippi's wrongful-death statute specifically grants the decedent's mother standing to file the wrongful-death suit, even where a surviving child exists, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. Vivian Myles-who is Enrique L. Myles's mother, and who believed she was his sole heir-filed this wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of Enrique's wrongful-death beneficiaries.[1]The defendants answered but later requested a stay when Janna Warnsley claimed that Enrique was the natural father of her child. The defendants argued that if Enrique was the child's father, Vivian lacked standing to file the suit. The defendants later supplemented their motion with a copy of the chancery-court petition, claiming that "Enrique L. Myles is the natural father of [L]W], " and asking the chancellor to find that LJW was Enrique's sole wrongful-death beneficiary.

         ¶4. LJW, by and through her mother, then moved to intervene in the wrongful-death action. Vivian responded, stating she had no objection to LJW's intervention. The defendants, however, opposed LJW's intervention, insisting that if LJW was a wrongful-death beneficiary, then Vivian was not and the lawsuit had to be dismissed because the filing plaintiff lacked standing.

         ¶5. After the circuit judge denied the defendants' requested stay, the defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that the chancery court had adjudicated LJW to be Enrique's heir, that Vivian lacked standing, and that the wrongful-death action had to be dismissed. In response, LJW moved to substitute herself as plaintiff. Vivian responded, arguing she had standing to file the wrongful-death action, and that LJW's existence did no more than to deny her a right to recover damages. She did not oppose LJW's motion to substitute.

         ¶6. During the hearing on the motion for summary judgment, Vivian's counsel suggested any issue of standing could be remedied if she voluntarily dismissed her complaint and LJW filed a new one. The defendants responded that the case must be dismissed by the court as a matter of law. So the circuit judge heard the parties' arguments on the merits and later denied the defendants' summary-judgment motion and granted the motion to substitute. The defendants then petitioned this Court for interlocutory appeal. We granted the petition and stayed proceedings in the circuit court.

         ¶7. Later, LJW and Vivian filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, stating:

4. Plaintiff Vivian Myles, AGREES with the Petitioners that she did not have standing to sue as the wrongful death beneficiary, as the deceased had an unborn child at the time of his death. This heir would be the person with the proper standing to bring the suit. A paternity test has confirmed the minor child is the sole heir to the deceased. Enrique Myles' minor child, LJW, at the time of his death, was his sole wrongful death beneficiary and heir at law with proper standing to file suit.
5. Respondent agrees LJW, at the time of Enrique Myles' death, was the sole heir and wrongful death beneficiary. Further, Petitioners concede that LJW is a proper party plaintiff and wrongful death beneficiary and heir.
6. Respondent agrees to dismiss the present lawsuit without prejudice to allow the proper heir, LJW, to file a Complaint.
7. No prejudice to the parties will occur if Petitioners' Petition for Interlocutory Appeal is dismissed and the parties are directed to dismiss the current Complaint without prejudice so the proper heir and wrongful death beneficiary may file a new Complaint.
8. Any further briefing by the parties regarding the Petition for Interlocutory Appeal would be a waste of time and resources for both this Court and the parties. There is no need for this Court to consider if Vivian Myles lacked proper standing to bring suit because the parties agree that Vivian Myles lacked proper standing and the correct person to bring the suit is the minor LJW. It would not promote judicial economy for the parties to fully brief this matter when the Respondent has now agreed with the Petitioners on the issue of who the correct heir is to bring the lawsuit. This issue is now moot.

         ¶8. The defendants responded and opposed the motion to dismiss. They argued this Court should address the legal question presented to it, and that the Court should tax Vivian and LJW with all costs and fees incurred during the litigation. Vivian and LJW then filed a rebuttal, explaining they were not abandoning their long-asserted view of the law, but rather had:

chosen to just agree with the Defendants' request to refile the complaint. Why? Because it is the more practical, judicially economic response instead of quibbling over an outcome that does not matter since the outcome reaches the same end result. It is easier to just agree with the request of the Defendant to move the case forward and save the Court and parties the wasted time.

         ¶9. A panel of this Court denied the motion to dismiss.

         ¶10. The defendants then filed a motion to hold LJW and Vivian in contempt and impose sanctions, claiming that LJW had filed a new wrongful-death action in the Hinds County Circuit Court. According to the defendants, filing the new complaint violated this Court's stay of proceedings in the trial court. The defendants asked this Court to order LJW to dismiss the new complaint and to award the defendants all costs associated with defending the new complaint.

         ¶11. Vivian and LJW each responded. LJW argued that she had filed her new complaint because she feared the statute of limitations would soon run and she had to protect herself in the event this Court concluded the first complaint should have been dismissed. She also argued this Court's stay, by its specific terms, applied only to the cause number on appeal, not other proceedings in the circuit court. Finally, she pointed out that the defendants' motion for contempt attacked her for doing exactly what they had demanded all along: that she file her own wrongful-death action. Vivian responded that she was not a party to the new suit.

         ¶12. The parties then filed their briefs. The defendants argued the circuit judge had erred by granting the motion to substitute and denying the motion for summary judgment because Vivian lacked standing to file this complaint, and the filing plaintiff's lack of standing cannot be corrected by substituting a different party. They also argue LJW is judicially or equitably estopped from arguing that Vivian had standing because she took a contrary position in the motion to dismiss this appeal. LJW-whose counsel filed the appellee's brief-argues that this appeal is moot because she has filed a new complaint.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Whether the Court should reconsider the motion to dismiss this appeal.

         ¶13. In her brief, LJW effectively reasserts the motion to dismiss this appeal, which a motions panel of this Court already has denied. She argues the Court's decision should now be different because she has filed a new wrongful-death complaint. The defendants do not agree the appeal should be dismissed, arguing this Court must at least determine whether LJW should be held in contempt for filing the second complaint, and whether LJW and Vivian should be taxed with the costs of this appeal. The defendants also contend that the second-filed complaint is invalid because the first complaint has not been dismissed and Mississippi's wrongful-death statute allows only one suit.[2] Because the motions panel already denied the motion to dismiss, and LJW offered to dismiss this litigation and file a new complaint in that motion, we find that this issue already has been conclusively decided.[3]

         II. Whether LJW is judicially or equitably estopped from arguing Vivian had standing to file this wrongful-death action.

         ¶14. As discussed above, when Vivian and LJW filed the motion to dismiss this appeal, the motion stated "Plaintiff Vivian Myles, AGREES with the Petitioners that she did not have standing to sue as the wrongful death beneficiary" and "[t]here is no need for this Court to consider if Vivian Myles lacked proper standing to bring suit because the parties agree that Vivian Myles lacked proper standing." But, after the defendants opposed that motion, Vivian and LJW responded, stating they did not actually agree with that point of law, but had simply decided that "[i]t is easier to just agree with the request of the Defendant to move the case forward and save the Court and parties the wasted time." Now, in her brief, LJW argues Vivian had standing.

         ¶15. The defendants argue LJW is judicially or equitably estopped from arguing Vivian had standing because she has taken inconsistent positions while this case has been on appeal. Practically speaking, by invoking these doctrines to estop LJW's argument on appeal, the defendants effectively ask this Court to reverse the trial judge's ruling-whether he erred or not-because LJW cannot defend his ruling. We have found no authority-and the defendants cite none-to suggest this Court may reverse a trial judge's correct ruling because the appellee takes inconsistent positions on appeal.

         ¶16. But, even accepting that these doctrines could function in this way, they do not apply here. "The doctrine of '[j]udicial estoppel is designed to protect the judicial system and applies where "intentional self-contradiction is being used as a means of obtaining unfair advantage in a forum provided for suitors seeking justice."'"[4] "A party will be judicially estopped from taking a subsequent position if (1) the position is inconsistent with one previously taken during litigation, (2) a court accepted the previous position, and (3) the party did not inadvertently take the inconsistent positions."[5] "'Judicial estoppel precludes a party from asserting a position, benefitting from that position, and then, when it becomes more convenient or profitable, retreating from that position later in the litigation.'"[6]

         ¶17. Here, LJW arguably has taken inconsistent positions on appeal. She joined a motion saying Vivian lacked standing to file this complaint but has now filed a brief arguing Vivian had standing. Giving effect to the plain language of the motion, it unequivocally agreed Vivian lacked standing. But this Court has not "accepted the previous position, " particularly because the acceptance prong looks to whether the party "benefitt[ed] from that position." LJW's prior position in the motion to dismiss was designed to bring this litigation to an end. This Court denied that motion.

         ¶18. The defendants also argue LJW should be equitably estopped from changing her position. "Equitable estoppel 'precludes a party from denying a material fact which he has previously induced another to rely upon, whereby the second party changed his position in such a way that he would suffer injury if denial was allowed.'"[7] But here, no one relied upon LJW's prior position. As stated above, LJW made that statement to support a motion to dismiss which the defendants opposed and this Court denied.

         III. Whether Vivian had standing to file this wrongful-death action.

         ¶19. In Burley v. Douglas, this Court explained who has standing to file suit under Mississippi's wrongful-death statute.[8] There, James Burley filed a wrongful-death action relating to the deaths of his daughter and grandsons.[9] The defendants claimed Burley lacked standing to file suit.[10] The circuit judge dismissed Burley's suit, insofar as it related to the deaths of his grandsons, for lack of standing.[11] This Court reversed, [12] explaining:

The Statute provides three categories of potential wrongful-death claimants who may commence a wrongful-death action. The action may be brought "(1) by the personal representative on behalf of the estate and all other persons entitled to recover; (2) by one of the wrongful death beneficiaries on behalf of all persons entitled to recover; or (3) by 'all interested parties. . . . '" Each category of potential wrongful-death claimants has an equal right to initiate the suit.[13]

         On appeal, LJW contends Vivian had standing to file this wrongful-death action under each of the three grounds. We conclude Vivian had ...


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