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Clark v. Neese

Supreme Court of Mississippi

August 16, 2018

KATHRYN SCHROEDER CLARK, WITH POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR HELEN SCHROEDER
v.
LISA YOUNGER NEESE, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF HARRY L. SCHROEDER, DECEASED

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/01/2016

          LOWNDES COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. JAMES T. KITCHENS, JR. JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: DUNBAR DOWDY WATT DAN W. WEBB, WAYNE DOWDY, ROECHELLE RYANN MORGAN, NORMA CARR RUFF

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: DUNBAR DOWDY WATT WAYNE DOWDY

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: NORMA CARR RUFF, DAN W. WEBB ROECHELLE RYANN MORGAN

          BEFORE WALLER, C.J., MAXWELL AND ISHEE, JJ.

          WALLER, CHIEF JUSTICE

         ¶1. Helen Schroeder appeals the Lowndes County Circuit Court's grant of summary judgment to the Estate of Harry Schroeder, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that the Estate was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the grounds of release, res judicata, and accord and satisfaction. We reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

         FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. This is the second time we have considered an appeal by Helen Schroeder ("Helen"), after the grant of summary judgment to the Estate of Harry Schroeder ("Harry").[1] The facts regarding the car accident and the original cause of action are set out in this Court's opinion in Clark v. Neese ("Clark I"), 131 So.3d 556, 558 (Miss. 2013):

A log truck driven by Royce Sullivan collided with the rear of an automobile being 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 capacity. 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. . . . 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.

         Following the settlement agreement, release, and subsequent dismissal of the action against Sullivan, Helen filed suit against Harry in the Circuit Court of Lowndes County, Mississippi. Id. Helen alleged that Harry negligently had failed to yield the right of way and 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. Id.

         ¶3. In response, on August 17, 2010, Harry moved for summary judgment and argued that Helen had pleaded facts in her complaint that were materially different from the facts she had alleged in the federal district court. Id. Harry asserted that the trial court should grant summary judgment based on the doctrines of judicial and equitable estoppel. Id. Harry also argued that the settlement and release of claims against Sullivan in federal court barred the circuit-court action under the doctrines of contractual release, accord and satisfaction, [2] and res judicata. Id.

         ¶4. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Harry and found that Helen was judicially estopped from bringing a claim against Harry. Id. The trial court reasoned that, although Helen discovered Harry's potential fault during discovery, she had made the conscious decision not to add Harry as a defendant to avoid losing diversity jurisdiction, and as a result, her failure to add Harry in federal court barred her from bringing suit in the circuit court.[3] Id. The trial court declined to rule on the merits regarding Harry's arguments of equitable estoppel, accord and satisfaction, and merger. Id.

         ¶5. On December 12, 2013, this Court reversed the judgment and remanded the case. Id. at 562. In regard to whether Helen's suit was barred by judicial estoppel, this Court held:

[W]e need not determine whether Helen's positions actually were knowingly inconsistent because we find it abundantly clear from the record that, when the federal district court denied Sullivan's motion for summary judgment, [it] was not required to accept or rely on Helen's prior position-an absolute requirement for the application of judicial estoppel.

Id.

         ¶6. In reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment, this Court directed the trial court to rule on Harry's claims of equitable estoppel, accord and satisfaction, contractual release, and merger. Id.

         ¶7. On remand, Harry again moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted on the basis of res judicata, accord and satisfaction, and contractual release.

         ¶8. Aggrieved, Helen again has appealed, raising the following issues:

I. Whether the Circuit Court of Lowndes County, Mississippi ("trial court") erred in granting summary judgment on the basis that the suit was barred by the doctrine of merger because all four elements of res judicata were satisfied.
II. Whether the trial court erred in finding that the satisfaction, release, and indemnity agreement ("release agreement") was "clear, definite, explicit, harmonious in all its provisions, and free from ambiguity throughout," and therefore, was a valid release of all claims stemming from the collision.
III. Whether the trial court improperly determined that the release agreement, coupled with the $300, 000 payment, and the plaintiff's subsequent acceptance of the payment, operated as an accord and satisfaction of all the plaintiff's claims stemming from the cause of action.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶9. We review the trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo. City of Jackson v.Shavers, 97 So.3d 686, 688 (Miss. 2012) (citing Arcadia Farms P'ship ...


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