ArvinMeritor, Inc. v. Handley, No. 2050951 (Ala. Civ. App. 6/27/2008)

Decision Date27 June 2008
Docket NumberNo. 2050951.,2050951.
PartiesArvinMeritor, Inc. v. Warren Handley.
CourtAlabama Court of Civil Appeals

Appeal from Fayette Circuit Court, (CV-03-142).

On Return to Remand.

MOORE, Judge.

ArvinMeritor, Inc. ("Arvin"), appeals from a judgment entered in Fayette Circuit Court ("the trial court") on July 6, 2006. In that judgment, the trial court awarded Warren Handley ("Handley") workers' compensation benefits based on its finding that Handley had become permanently and totally disabled from various occupational diseases arising out of and in the course of his employment with Arvin. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand with instructions.

Procedural History

On November 17, 2003, Handley, along with several hundred other plaintiffs, filed a complaint in the trial court against Arvin, several individually named former managers of Arvin, and a number of fictitious party defendants. In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that they had each been employed by Arvin and that, as a result of that employment, they had sustained injury by way of exposure to toxic and dangerous chemicals. The plaintiffs asserted claims based on workers' compensation, co-employee liability, misrepresentation, suppression and deceit. Arvin removed the case to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on December 19, 2003. The United States District Court remanded the case to the Fayette Circuit Court on January 9, 2004.

On May 5, 2005, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint, adding more plaintiffs and alleging further claims against a number of third-party defendants, who allegedly designed, manufactured, and distributed the chemicals that caused the plaintiffs' alleged injuries, for negligence and wantonness, violations of the Alabama Extended Manufacturers Liability Doctrine ("AEMLD"), civil conspiracy, and outrage. Arvin filed an answer on June 1, 2005; Arvin pleaded a number of defenses, including res judicata, collateral estoppel, and statute of limitations. Arvin and a number of the other defendants filed motions to dismiss or, in the alternative, motions for summary judgment; Arvin's motion was filed on November 30, 2005. Those motions were denied by the trial court on March 27, 2006.

On March 23, 2006, Handley filed a motion alleging that he had been diagnosed with polymyositis and had been hospitalized, and that his condition had deteriorated to a grave and alarming degree and requesting that his workers' compensation claim be tried as soon as possible. On March 28, 2006, the trial court set Handley's trial date for June 8, 2006. On April 28, 2006, Arvin filed a renewed motion for a summary judgment that addressed only Handley's claims. The trial court denied that motion for a summary judgment on June 1, 2006.1

On June 8, 2006, Arvin filed a motion in limine to exclude the findings, reports, and opinions of Handley's experts, Dr. Eugene A. Mangieri and Lori Andrews. On June 15, 2006, the trial court reset the trial date for June 29, 2006. After a two-day bench trial, the trial court entered a judgment on July 6, 2006, awarding Handley permanent-total-disability benefits and taxing costs to Arvin. On July 31, 2006, the trial court entered an order granting Handley's motion for costs in the amount of $105,682.77. Arvin filed a motion for reconsideration of the trial court's award of costs on August 8, 2006; on September 28, 2006, the trial court reduced the cost award to $83,312.16.

Arvin filed a notice of appeal on August 17, 2006. On November 6, 2006, Arvin filed a motion in the trial court for relief from the judgment, requesting a new trial because of newly discovered evidence located in Handley's Social Security Disability file. The trial court denied Arvin's motion for relief from the judgment on January 11, 2007.

On November 16, 2007, this court remanded the case to the trial court so that the trial court could certify its July 6, 2006, judgment, which failed to adjudicate the claims of the remaining plaintiffs, as final. ArvinMeritor, Inc. v. Handley, [Ms. 2050951, November 11, 2007] ___ So. 2d ___ (Ala. Civ. App. 2007). On November 30, 2007, the trial court entered an order certifying that order as final, pursuant to Rule 54(b), Ala. R. Civ. P.

Res Judicata

On appeal, Arvin raises numerous issues. The court first addresses Arvin's argument that the claims raised in Handley's November 2003 complaint are barred by the doctrine of res judicata.

Arvin introduced into evidence a judgment entered by the trial court on October 17, 2002. That judgment indicated that Handley claimed injuries to his cervical spine occurring on May 9, 1999, and May 18, 2001. The judgment recited that the parties had mediated those claims with the assistance of an ombudsman, see Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-292(a), and that they reached a settlement agreement, which was attached to the judgment. That agreement, dated September 23, 2002, and signed by both parties and their attorneys, indicated that the issues in dispute involved only the two claimed cervical-spine injuries and that the parties had agreed that Arvin would pay Handley $60,000 and would pay his attorney $2,000 for expenses to close all issues relating to those injuries. Arvin also agreed that it would waive any right to setoff against its liability any amounts paid to Handley as short-term disability or disability-retirement benefits. See Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-57(c).

Although the September 23, 2002, written agreement did not refer to a release of any claims or causes of actions relating to other injuries or occupational diseases, the judgment states:

"As part of the parties' settlement agreement, the plaintiff will release the defendant from any and all other workers' compensation claims arising out of the plaintiff's employment with the defendant. ..." Thereafter, the judgment approves the settlement and specifically orders:

"The defendant is released from any and all other liability to the plaintiff for any other workers' compensation claim or cause of action arising out of the plaintiff's employment with the defendant."

Arvin asserted in its answer the defense of res judicata, noting that several of the plaintiffs had already received workers' compensation benefits.2 Arvin argues that the last two quoted provisions of the judgment effectively adjudicated any and all workers' compensation claims Handley had against Arvin, including Handley's claims for benefits due to the contraction of an occupational disease as asserted in the November 2003 complaint.

"The elements of res judicata are: `(1) a prior judgment on the merits, (2) rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, (3) with substantial identity of parties, and (4) with the same cause of action presented in both actions.' Equity Res. Mgmt., Inc. v. Vinson, 723 So. 2d 634, 636 (Ala. 1998). `If those four elements are present, then any claim that was, or that could have been, adjudicated in the prior action is barred from further litigation.' 723 So. 2d at 636. `Res judicata, therefore, bars a party from asserting in a subsequent action a claim that it has already had an opportunity to litigate in a previous action.' Lee L. Saad Constr. Co. v. DPF Architects, P.C., 851 So. 2d 507, 517 (Ala. 2002)."

Lloyd Noland Found., Inc. v. HealthSouth Corp., 979 So. 2d 784, 793 (Ala. 2007). The burden was on Arvin, as the party asserting res judicata, to prove all of the essential elements of the defense. Stewart v. Brinley, 902 So. 2d 1, 11 (Ala. 2004).

The parties disagree solely on the identity-of-issues element; therefore, we will assume, without deciding, that the other elements of res judicata have been established. See Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-56 (giving judgments approving settlements conclusive and binding effect); see also Lawrence v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 226 Ala. 161, 145 So. 577 (1933) (holding that judgment approving settlement may be given res judicata effect); Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-292(f)(2) (conferring jurisdiction on compensation court to review and approve settlement mediated by ombudsman at benefit review conference). "`"[T]he principal test for comparing causes of action [for the application of res judicata] is whether the primary right and duty or wrong are the same in each action."`" Old Republic Ins. Co. v. Lanier, 790 So. 2d 922, 928 (Ala. 2000) (quoting Wesch v. Folsom, 6 F.3d 1465, 1471 (11th Cir. 1993)).

In Blue Circle, Inc. v. Williams, 579 So. 2d 630 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991), this court considered the identity-of-issues element in a case very similar to this one. In Williams, the employee sustained two successive employment-related injuries, one in 1985 and one in 1987, to the same wrist. Apparently after the 1987 injury, the employee and the employer entered into a settlement agreement referencing only the 1985 wrist injury and stating that the benefits paid to the employee pursuant to the settlement agreement were benefits "arising out of the injury described herein above." 579 So. 2d at 632. In the judgment approving that settlement,

"the Circuit Court of Jefferson County entered a decree, which provided that the `payment made hereunder shall constitute full and complete payment of any and all obligations owing the [employee] by the [employer].'"

Id. (emphasis added). The employee then filed a civil action for benefits due for the 1987 wrist injury. The employer argued that the language of the judgment approving the settlement barred the action. The trial court determined that the specific reference to the 1985 injury in the settlement agreement and the absence of any reference to the 1987 injury unambiguously indicated that the parties intended for the settlement to apply only to the former injury. 579 So. 2d at 633. "In view of the language of the settlement agreement," id., this court held that the trial court did not err by failing to give res judicata effect to the judgment entered by the trial court.

It appears from Williams...

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