Posted by: Andy Taylor | June 5, 2013

Ford Motor Company v. Washington (Ford III): The Third Time Is Not the Charm (and it ain’t over yet)

Introduction

We have written two previous blog posts regarding this case: The first blog post discussed Ford Motor Co. v. Washington, 2012 Ark. 325 (“Ford I“), and the second blog post discussed Ford Motor Co. v. Washington, 2012 Ark. 354 (“Ford II“).  In these two opinions, the Arkansas Supreme Court held that there was not a final order because a party that was orally dismissed by the Court was never dismissed in any written order. (Ford was the original opinion, and Ford II was an opinion denying the petitions for rehearing.)  In Ford Motor Co. v. Washington, 2013 Ark. 88 (“Ford III“), the Arkansas Supreme Court again held that there was no final order, this time for a completely different reason.  A brief review of the factual and procedural history of this case is in order.

Factual & Procedural History of the Ford Case

The facts of the case are as follows: Mr. Johnny Ray Washington and his son were travelling in a 1994 Ford Explorer when Ms. Karah Allen Williams ran a stop sign, colliding with Mr. Washington’s Explorer. Ford I, 2012 Ark. 325, at 2. The Explorer flipped twice, killing Mr. Washington (his son survived). Id. Mr. Washington’s wife, Ms. Paulette Washington, sued (individually and as administratrix of Mr. Williams’s estate) the manufacturer of the vehicle, the dealership that sold the vehicle, and the driver who ran the stop sign (Ms. Williams). Id. Ms. Washington eventually settled with the driver, and an order was entered dismissing her. Id. Ms. Washington also nonsuited her claims against the dealership, and her attorneys announced the nonsuit to the trial court, but no written order was ever entered dismissing the dealership. Id.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned verdicts based on special interrogatories. Ford III, 2013 Ark. 88, at 3-4. The jury found that Ford and Ms. Williams were both proximate causes of Mr. Williams’s death, and assigned 50% of the fault to each. Id. (Although Ms. Williams had been dismissed from the lawsuit, she was included on the verdict form for apportionment purposes.) Id. at 2. The jury awarded $4,652,125 in compensatory damages and $2,500,000 in punitive damages. Id. at 3-4. The trial court incorporated the special interrogatories into its judgment, and stated: “Therefore, judgment is awarded to the respective plaintiffs as set out above.” Id.

Ford appealed, asserting that the circuit court had erred by: (1) refusing to admit evidence that the plaintiff was not wearing a seatbelt; (2) refusing to hold that some of Ms. Williams’s claims were preempted by federal law; (3) refusing to grant JNOV with respect to the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim; and (4) refusing to reduce the compensatory damages by half. Ford I, 2012 Ark. 325, at 1.

In Ford I, the Court held that the judgment was not a final order because although the dealership had been orally dismissed from the case, no written order had ever been entered dismissing the dealership. Id. at 2. Both parties filed petitions for rehearing, arguing that language in the notices of appeal and cross-appeal (in which the parties had stated that they abandoned all pending but unresolved claims) made the order a final order. Ford II, 2012 Ark. 354, at 1. In Ford II, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that that language in the notice of appeal dismissed only claims and not partiesId. at 1-2.

After the Court’s holdings in Ford I and Ford II, the case was remanded to the trial court so that a written order could be entered dismissing the party with whom the plaintiffs had settled (the dealership).  Ford III, 2013 Ark. 88, at 4-5.  Ford Motor Company appealed again, raising the same four points on appeal. Id. at 1-2.

The Ford III Decision

On appeal in Ford III, the Arkansas Supreme Court raised, sua sponte, the issue of finality. Id. at 5. The Court held that in order for a judgment to be final, “the amount of the judgment must be computed, as near as may be, in dollars and cents and . . . the judgment must specify clearly the relief granted or other determination of the action.” Id. (citing Thomas v. McElroy, 243 Ark. 465, 420 S.W.2d 530 (1967); Ark.Code Ann. § 16–65–103). The Court held that the problem with the judgment that had been entered by the circuit court was that it did not set forth a specific dollar amount owed by Ford. Id. at 6. The Court held that “[i]nstead, the circuit court merely reproduced the jury’s answers to the interrogatories and gave no further guidance.” Id. In support of its holding, the Arkansas Supreme Court noted that in Ford’s brief, Ford had requested that the Arkansas Supreme Court clarify the amount of money that it owed. Id. Because the Court held that the judgment did not constitute a final order, the Court dismissed the appeal without prejudice. Id.

The Ford III Dissent

This opinion is notable not just for its holding, but also for a rather vigorous dissent, written by Justice Hart. Id. at 7-8 (Hart, J., dissenting). The dissent seems to be based on two considerations. First, Justice Hart noted that the record in the case was “huge,” consisting of a 2,208-page abstract and a 1,201-page addendum. Id. at 7. She then noted that the Supreme Court had previously reviewed the same judgment, and had remanded the case for lack of a final order (for failure to dismiss a party by written order), but had not raised this particular finality issue until the case had been remanded and was back up on appeal. Id.

Second, the dissent argues that the judgment was, in fact, a final order. Id. at 7-8. The dissent noted that the jury interrogatories (and the judgment) set forth the exact amount of compensatory and punitive damages, and that the interrogatories then apportioned fault, with 50% of the fault attributed to the manufacturer, and 50% of the fault attributed to the driver. Id. at 7. The dissent then argues that “[i]t is simply not defensible to assert that this judgment is not final because this court does not deign to perform a simple arithmetical operation that is routinely taught in the second grade—division by two.” Id. at 7.

Practical Impact of Ford III

The practical impact of this decision is that an order or judgment involving money must state the exact amount owed, in dollars and cents. There can be no ambiguity. Although the judgment in Ford III did not specifically set forth a formula (it was implied that the compensatory damage award would be reduced by half because the jury had determined that Ford was only 50% responsible, but that was not explicitly stated in the judgment), the opinion in Ford III seems to imply that even a formula would not have been sufficient. Therefore, the safest route to obtain a final judgment is to ensure that any money judgment sets forth an exact amount owed, down to the penny.

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