Chapman v. Kane Transfer Co., Inc.

Decision Date12 July 1977
Docket NumberNo. 13861,13861
Citation160 W.Va. 530,236 S.E.2d 207
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. The refusal of a trial court, at a pretrial conference, to admit a written agreement as evidence in a civil action may not be considered a substantial error, since at a later jury trial of the action the agreement, in whole or in part, may or may not be pertinent, relevant and competent evidence for jury consideration.

2. While a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), R.C.P., may be treated as a motion for summary judgment along with matters outside the pleadings, the Rules do not provide for treating a motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss the action when matters outside the pleadings are to be considered as bases for dispositive judgment by the trial court on the motion.

3. The trial court, in appraising the sufficiency of a complaint on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, should not dismiss the complaint unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957).

Rice, Hannis & Douglas, Richard L. Douglas and Charles F. Printz, Jr., Martinsburg, for appellant.

Bean & Bean, Ralph J. Bean, Oscar M. Bean, Moorefield, for appellee.

McGRAW, Justice:

The personal injury action of plaintiff, John Walter Chapman, Jr., against defendant, Kane Transfer Company, Inc., "was dismissed with prejudice against the Plaintiff to reinstatement of same", by order of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County, entered on October 12, 1976. The trial court, on its own invitation and on motion of defendant's attorney, treated a pending motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), W.Va. R.C.P., as procedural basis for its dismissal order. Defendant's motion to have the motion for summary judgment treated as a motion to dismiss asked that such consideration be given but "without the supporting Affidavits and Counter-Affidavits" filed in support of and in opposition to the motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff's complaint alleges that, on August 27, 1973, while he was assisting with unloading produce from defendant's trailer over a trailer ramp to a loading dock at the Grand Union Food Market, Martinsburg, West Virginia, "the trailer ramp connecting the truck and the loading dock collapsed causing the Plaintiff to suffer a fall and sustain severe injury to his right leg and ankle." He asserts that the "sole and proximate cause" of his injuries resulted from defendant's negligence "due to the defendant's failure, by its agent to properly position the trailer and properly set the ramp." He claims damages, including "expenses for doctor and hospital treatment", loss of wages, and compensation for "great pain of body and mind", and demands a jury trial.

Defendant moved to dismiss, filed its answer, and interposed three affirmative defenses, all largely based on failure of the complaint to state a cause of action against defendant and lack of any duty owing by defendant to plaintiff. Defendant served 22 interrogatories on plaintiff and, when no timely answers were forthcoming, moved to dismiss the action as a sanction under Rule 37. This motion was later withdrawn and plaintiff responded to the interrogatories. Plaintiff's 11 interrogatories served on defendant were answered. Defendant's responses to the interrogatories brought into the record a copy of an agreement, dated August 13, 1973, between The Grand Union Company, as shipper, and defendant Kane Transfer Company, as carrier, covering transportation of Grand Union's commodities by defendant from shipper's distribution center to its various markets, including stores in West Virginia.

The first paragraph of the agreement provides:

"FIRST: Carrier agrees, during the term of this Agreement, to furnish the management, supervision and necessary labor and automotive equipment to load, unload and deliver by motor vehicle, commodities which are shipped from Shipper's distribution center at Landover, Maryland to its stores located in Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia."

At a pretrial conference on May 24, 1976, the trial court allowed the agreement to be marked as Plaintiff's Exhibit No. 1 and to be vouched into the record for possible appeal consideration, but denied plaintiff's motion to allow the agreement in evidence for jury consideration.

At the pretrial conference the court permitted plaintiff to amend his complaint and also permitted defendant to amend its answer by inserting a fourth defense on plaintiff's assumption of the risk incident to the unloading work whereby he was injured. The court denied defendant's motion to dismiss the action, since it appeared to the trial court "that Plaintiff's amendment to the Complaint hereinbefore set out meets the substance of Defendant's objection to Plaintiff's Complaint raised in Defendant's Motion to Dismiss." At the conference other exhibits were identified and marked, plaintiff's special damages were stipulated, agreement was reached on the contents of the court's preliminary statement to the jury, and the jury trial was set for July 22, 1976, subject to the court's action on a motion for summary judgment contemplated to be filed by defendant. The motion for summary judgment was filed on June 16, 1976, supported by affidavits and restating defenses earlier interposed by defendant. Counter affidavits were later filed by plaintiff.

The trial court prepared a Memorandum of Opinion which reviewed in part the agreement of August 13, 1973, admitted in the record but not for purposes of evidence to be considered by the jury, and some of the materials brought into the record through interrogatories, and, in the written opinion, concluded:

". . . It seems clear that although the contract would indicate a duty on the carrier to unload never the less the parties have modified the contract and further ratified the modification by their acts since the carrier does not in practice unload any of the trailers and the store does in practice unload all the trailers at the Martinsburg Store therefore if in fact there is any claim under the contract because of the carrier's failure to unload and supervise the unloading it would be a contractual claim by Grant Union against a carrier for breach of contract for not carrying out all their duties under the contract.

"The Plaintiff has no contractual rights with the Defendant and has therefore brought his suit as negligence case and since the carrier wasn't doing anything at the time of the unloading when the Plaintiff was injured there wasn't any duty by the carrier to the employee who was working under the direction of his employer Grand Union. It is recognized by the Court under certain circumstances there is a duty for example not to willfully injure a trespasser on your property but none of these other rules that might create a duty on part of the carrier are implemented by the facts in this case and the unloading was being done by Grand Union and Grand Union has not been made a party Defendant.

"Simply stated the carrier had to do something wrong in violation of a duty owed to the Grand Union employee that it had control of, and they didn't do anything wrong in connection with the situation that was under their control and at the time of the accident is was not under their control.

"The Court is of opinion to treat the Motion for Summary Judgment as a motion to dismiss and sustain the same and will enter a proper order submitted to it for that purpose."

The jury trial was continued and another pretrial conference was held on October 12, 1976, at which time the parties stipulated certain facts relating primarily to trailer unloading operations on the evening of August 27, 1973, when plaintiff sustained his injuries. Counsel for defendant moved that defendant's motion for summary judgment be treated as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), W.Va.R.C.P., without the supporting affidavits and plaintiff's counter affidavits. The court granted defendant's motion to dismiss and, by order of October 12, 1976, dismissed the action "with prejudice against the Plaintiff to reinstatement of same." The order made the court's Memorandum of Opinion, as above referenced, a part of the record. On plaintiff's petition for a writ of error and supersedeas, granted February 28, 1977, the trial court's final judgment order of October 12, 1976, is now before the Court for review and consideration. By leave of Court granted on March 14, 1977, the hearing of this cause was expedited. W.Va.Code, 58-5-25.

In their presentations counsel for the parties focus on two issues: (1) Whether the trial court erred in refusing to admit for evidence purposes the commodity transportation agreement between The Grand Union Company and Kane Transfer Company, dated August 13, 1973; and (2) whether the court erred in treating and considering defendant's motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and in granting the motion to dismiss the action with prejudice against plaintiff.

This is an action in tort to recover damages for personal injuries. In such cases the complaint shall contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" and "a demand for judgment for the relief to which he deems himself entitled." Rule 8(a), W.Va.R.C.P. Form 9, complaint for negligence, is sufficient under the Rules to indicate the simplicity and brevity required in a complaint for personal injuries. Rule 84. If a complaint is vague or ambiguous, the defendant may move for a more definite statement of factual allegations. Rule 12(e). Pleadings are defined in Rule 7(a). Other record materials, such as motions, depositions,...

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