Thursday, October 10, 2002
Court of Appeal Rules:
Designation of Civil Case as ‘Limited’ Strictly Limits Judgment Amount
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge exceeded her authority when she attempted gave a plaintiff in a limited civil case a second bite of the apple by declaring a mistrial after a jury awarded more than $25,000 in damages, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Seven yesterday certified for publication its Sept. 17 opinion upholding Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Malcom Mackey’s ruling that Michael Wozniak, the victim of an auto accident, is limited to the $25,000 jurisdictional limit of the former municipal court.
Wozniak’s case against Gregory Lucutz was filed in the former Municipal Court in 1999, and contained the standard averment that the plaintiff “remits judgment in excess of this court’s jurisdiction.” The case went to jury trial in the unified Superior Court last year, after Wozniak rejected an arbitration award of less than $6,000.
The jury returned a $58,000 verdict, and Judge Barbara Meiers granted a mistrial rather than limit the award to the $25,000 limit. Meiers then ordered that the case be transferred to the “unlimited jurisdiction court,” where it was assigned to Mackey.
The veteran jurist later granted Lucutz’s motion to vacate the mistrial order and ordered that judgment be entered for the jurisdictional limit “in conformance with both the jury’s verdict and the plaintiff’s expressed agreement to remit any verdict or judgment in excess of the court in which this action was originally filed and tried.”
Wozniak appealed, but Presiding Justice Mildred Lillie, writing for the Court of Appeal, said his attack on Mackey’s order was “based on misunderstandings of the effects of trial court unification and the legal consequences of pleadings, proceedings, and rulings in this record.”
The presiding justice rejected the contention that Mackey was without authority to vacate Meiers’ order.
“To the extent that appellant contends that Judge Mackey’s judgment was erroneous because it violated the principle of priority of jurisdiction, we conclude that the principle is inapplicable under the procedural posture of the instant case as there was no risk of conflicting simultaneous adjudications by different departments of the superior court,” Lillie wrote.
She explained that since Meiers had transferred the matter, after Wozniak’s counsel made an oral motion to that effect, there was no contemplation of further proceedings in her department. “Having expressly requested that another judge deal with post-verdict matters and the final disposition of the case, Wozniak has also waived any objection based on the principle of priority of jurisdiction,” Lillie reasoned.
Nor was Lucutz required to meet the requirements for a motion to reconsider, as set forth in Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 1008. “We choose to follow that line of cases which recognizes that Code of Civil Procedure section 1008 notwithstanding, the trial court retains the ability to reconsider its interim rulings and to change those rulings at any time prior to entry of judgment.”
Otherwise, she said, judicial resources would be wasted by forcing litigants to appeal in order to correct rulings that the trial judge recognizes are erroneous. In any event, she added, Mackey could have treated Lucutz’ request as a motion for relief under Sec. 473.
In concluding that Mackey was correct on the merits, Lillie distinguished cases affirming judgments in excess of the prayer of the complaint. In those cases, she explained, “the award of damages in an amount greater than set forth in the complaint nevertheless has been affirmed on the ground that the parties had voluntarily submitted and actually tried the issue and there was no prejudice or surprise to defendant.”
That is not the case, she said, where the complaint contains “a clear, unambiguous and valid remission clause that was not stricken or amended prior to or during trial.” In those cases, the defendant is entitled to base a trial strategy on the knowledge that no matter what evidence is presented, the award cannot exceed the limit for what is termed, under post-unification law, a “limited civil case,” the presiding justice declared.
Attorneys on appeal were Howard Gertz of Ellis & Kingston for the plaintiff and Roy G. Weatherup and Stephen M. Caine of Haight, Brown & Bonesteel, with William S. Hargiss of Bollington, Stilz, Bloeser & Curry, for the defendant.
The case is Wozniak v. Lucutz, B152997.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company