Canadian Nat./Ill. Cent. R. Co. v. Smith

Decision Date23 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. 2005-IA-01473-SCT.,2005-IA-01473-SCT.
Citation926 So.2d 839
PartiesCANADIAN NATIONAL/ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY v. Terry Louis SMITH, et al.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Glenn F. Beckham, Lonnie D. Bailey, Greenwood, Edward Blackmon, Canton, Jr., Frank Jones, for Appellant.

James B. Grenfell, Brad M. Williams, Jackson, for Appellees.

EN BANC.

DICKINSON, Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. The petition before us today is for writs of mandamus and prohibition and for permission to appeal interlocutory orders of the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County. We find the petition has merit and should be granted; further briefing is unnecessary, and we should now proceed to dispose of the issues.

BACKGROUND FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

¶ 2. Suit was originally brought against Illinois Central Railroad Company ("the Railroad") by three employees under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51, et seq. The original complaint alleged the plaintiffs worked for the Railroad "and/or its predecessors" and that "plaintiffs" were exposed to various hazardous materials including "asbestos, asbestos-containing products, sand, silica, ballast dust, grinding dust, diesel fumes, coal dust and other fibrogenic, carcinogenic noxious and deleterious dusts fumes, mists solvents and gases. . . ." As a result of this alleged exposure — which plaintiffs characterize by listing fifteen specific categories of negligent conduct — the complaint claims "plaintiffs have developed and are at increased risk to develop one or more" of 21 various enumerated diseases "and other asbestos-related cancer."

¶ 3. The complaint, which treats the plaintiffs as a single entity, neither specifies negligence or harm associated with any particular plaintiff nor explains when where, how, or by what product any particular plaintiff was injured. Although the plaintiffs amended their complaint several times, they never corrected these deficiencies.

¶ 4. Several plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims, leaving five plaintiffs before us today. During discovery, the Railroad learned that no plaintiff ever worked at the same time and place as any other plaintiff. Recognizing their inability to comply with the requirements for proper joinder of claims under Miss. R. Civ. P. Rule 20, the plaintiffs agreed to severance. However, in ordering the agreed severance, Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green proclaimed that the claims of the five remaining plaintiffs were "properly filed in the First Judicial District of Hinds County," and that "this action shall proceed as to the claims of Larry Polk." The other four plaintiffs were required to file amended complaints and obtain new civil action numbers from the clerk. Specifically, Judge Green ordered that four of the plaintiffs "shall be severed from this action, and shall file amended complaints, and the Clerk is hereby ordered to assign new cause numbers for those actions reassigning those cases to the Honorable Judge Tomie T. Green."

¶ 5. Claiming Judge Green's order improperly circumvented the random assignment of cases required by Rule 1.05A of the Uniform Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice, the Railroad filed the motion before us today. Plaintiffs responded to the motion on August 2, 2005, and we stayed all trial court proceedings pending completion of our review and disposition of the matter. Our review is now complete. We grant the Railroad's motion for interlocutory appeal and, because this appeal involves issues of law, requiring no resolution of disputed fact, we now proceed to decide the matter without further briefing.

DISCUSSION

¶ 6. Judge Green's order declared the five plaintiffs were properly before the Circuit Court of Hinds County, First Judicial District. She ordered the claims of one of the plaintiffs to proceed in the current action and ordered the remaining four plaintiffs to file amended complaints. In addition, she ordered the clerk to assign new civil action numbers to these four amended complaints and to assign all four of them to her. The Railroad argues that, in issuing this order, Judge Green bypassed the random assignment procedure required by Rule 1.05A of the Uniform Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice, which states:

In multi-judge districts and courts, all civil cases shall be assigned immediately on the filing of the complaint by such method which shall insure that the assignment shall be random, that no discernable pattern of assignment exists, and that no person shall know to whom the case will be assigned until it has been assigned. If an attorney or party shall attempt to manipulate or defeat the purpose of this rule, the case shall be reassigned to the judge who would have otherwise received the assignment. If the judge who would have received the case under an assignment in compliance with this rule cannot be determined, a new assignment in compliance with the rule shall be made, excluding the judge to whom it was incorrectly assigned.

¶ 7. Plaintiffs respond, asserting that, once the original complaint was assigned to Judge Green in compliance with Rule 1.05, she was within her discretion to retain the cases of all of the plaintiffs, even after severance. Because we hold today that the four misjoined plaintiffs must file new complaints in jurisdictions of appropriate venue, we decline to address issues of random assignment or venue as to these plaintiffs. All such issues must be first presented to the trial court or courts in which their new complaints are filed.

¶ 8. However, the claims of Larry Polk require a different analysis. Judge Green did not order Polk to file an amended complaint. Rather, her order provided that the current civil action would continue with Polk as the only plaintiff. This, combined with her holding that Polk was properly before the Circuit Court of the First Judicial District of Hinds County, presupposes that Polk's original complaint filed March 28, 2003, and his amended complaint filed February 27, 2004, satisfy the requirements for venue and comply with notice pleading requirements. We turn now to a review of the law to be applied to the undisputed facts in this case.

Analysis of applicable law

¶ 9. Although claims of misjoinder and inadequate pleading frequently travel together, they are distinct issues requiring separate and different analyses. Furthermore, where both misjoinder and insufficient pleading are found, an appropriate remedy fashioned to address one will not necessarily remedy the other. That said, we begin our analysis with two procedural pleading requirements we addressed and clarified in several cases of relatively recent vintage. Our pronouncements regarding the requirements for proper joinder under Miss. R. Civ. P. Rule 20, and regarding the minimum information necessary to comply with the requirements of notice pleading required under Miss. R. Civ. P. Rules 8, 9, 10 and 11, have been the subject of considerable interest and comment from the judiciary and the bar. Today, we provide further needed clarification.

¶ 10. With respect to the joinder and pleading issues, this case presents nothing new or novel. It does, however, present a tangential question of first impression, that is, whether the lawsuits of misjoined plaintiffs — after severance — should be dismissed and refiled as new cases. As will be discussed below, substantial precedent exists for requiring amended complaints and transfers, where necessary, to appropriate venues.

¶ 11. Having severed the cases of four plaintiffs from Polk's case, Judge Green believed all five cases were continuing in nature, notwithstanding her order of new civil action numbers for the four that were severed. Because the suits of all five plaintiffs were originally assigned to her, and because she concluded that all five plaintiffs could properly pursue their claims in the First Judicial District of Hinds County, Judge Green thought it appropriate to retain the case of one plaintiff and order the clerk to assign her the other four.

¶ 12. Realizing this is an issue of first impression, and giving Judge Green the benefit of the doubt (to which she is certainly entitled), we cannot say her decision was unreasonable or without legitimate purpose. Judicial economy, alone, could explain her decision to retain five similar cases filed against the same defendant. Indeed, Plaintiffs' counsel presents an excellent brief supporting Judge Green's decision. The Railroad also presents an impressive brief, forcefully arguing that random assignment of the severed cases pursuant to Rule 1.05 is critical to the administration of justice.

¶ 13. We reach our decision today after careful review of the positions argued by the parties, as well as consideration of numerous issues presented by severance of misjoined plaintiffs. We find it prudent at this juncture to review our current law on joinder and notice pleading, and then address the basis for our holding today.

Joinder

¶ 14. Beginning with Janssen Pharmaceutica v. Armond, 866 So.2d 1092 (Miss. 2004), Justice Cobb, speaking for this Court sitting en banc, and without dissent,1 clarified the requirements for proper joinder under Rule 20 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. A simple statement of our holding in Armond and its progeny2 is that plaintiffs may not be joined under Rule 20 unless their claims are connected by a distinct, litigable event. Id. at 1099.

¶ 15. The parties in this case agree that the plaintiffs are not properly joined. Plaintiffs have agreed that severance is appropriate. Thus, we affirm Judge Green's order, so far as it orders severance. However, severing the plaintiffs' cases does not end the inquiry.

Misjoinder, severance and transfer

¶ 16. A finding of misjoinder and order of severance of the plaintiffs — without more— suggests nothing more than that the plaintiffs have not complied with Rule 20. In Armond, this Court faced,...

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