Clayton v. Branson

Decision Date07 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. COA04-884.,COA04-884.
Citation613 S.E.2d 259
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesJohn Andrew CLAYTON, III, Plaintiff, v. T.H. BRANSON, individually and in his official capacity, The Greensboro Police Department and The City of Greensboro, Defendants.

Greeson Law Offices, by Harold F. Greeson, and Smith James Rowlett & Cohen, by Seth R. Cohen, Greensboro, for plaintiff-appellant and cross-appellee.

Smith Moore LLP, by Alan W. Duncan, Allison O. Van Laningham, and Patti W. Ramseur; and Fred T. Hamlet, Greensboro, for defendant-appellee and cross-appellant.

LEVINSON, Judge.

The parties appeal from post-trial orders entered following a verdict and judgment in favor of plaintiff. We reverse in part and dismiss as moot in part.

This case arises out of events occurring 20 December 1994, when defendant-Officer, T.H. Branson of the Greensboro, North Carolina Police Department, transported plaintiff (John Clayton) from plaintiff's home in Greensboro to the city magistrate's office. On 19 December 1997 plaintiff filed suit against Branson, both individually and in his official capacity, and against defendants Greensboro Police Department and City of Greensboro ("the city"). Plaintiff's complaint was voluntarily dismissed in 1999, but later refiled on 28 April 2000. The complaint alleged, inter alia that: (1) when plaintiff was taken to the magistrate's office, Branson placed him in the back seat of a patrol car equipped with a metal safety screen between the front and back seats; (2) the screen made the back seat too cramped for plaintiff to use a seat belt; (3) on the drive downtown Branson drove 60-70 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone; (4) when another driver stopped on the road in front of them, Branson "slammed on his brakes and jerked his patrol vehicle to the right and then to the left in order to avoid a collision"; (5) Branson's maneuvers to avoid a collision "propelled [plaintiff] forward into the metal screen. . . with great force and violence"; and (6) as a result of this incident, he "[had] undergone three surgeries on his back and continue[d] to suffer excruciating and intractable pain to this day."

On the basis of these and other factual allegations, plaintiff brought claims against (1) Branson in his individual and official capacity for negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton misconduct; and (2) the Greensboro Police Department and the City of Greensboro on the theory of respondeat superior, and for negligent construction and installation of the metal screen in the patrol car. Plaintiff later amended his complaint to add a third claim against the city (the constitutional claim), seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of his rights to "substantive due process and equal protection of the laws" under the North Carolina and U.S. constitutions. The defendants denied the material allegations of plaintiff's complaint, and raised the defense of governmental immunity. Defendants also moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied.

Defendants appealed from the denial of their summary judgment motion, and on 15 October 2002 this Court issued its opinion in Clayton v. Branson, 153 N.C.App. 488, 570 S.E.2d 253 (2002) ("Clayton I"). The Court held that governmental immunity precluded plaintiff's negligence claims against Branson, the Greensboro Police Department, and the city of Greensboro, and reversed the trial court's denial of summary judgment on these claims. The Court also held that governmental immunity did not bar plaintiff's gross negligence claim against Branson individually, and upheld the court's denial of summary judgment on that claim. Finally, the Court upheld the trial court's denial of summary judgment on plaintiff's § 1983 constitutional claim, on the basis that "defendants have no defense of governmental immunity against the § 1983 claim." Clayton I, 153 N.C.App. at 494, 570 S.E.2d at 257.

Plaintiff's surviving claims, against Branson for gross negligence, and against the city for violating his constitutional rights, were tried before a jury in September, 2003. After presentation of evidence, four issues were submitted to the jury:

1. Was the plaintiff, John A. Clayton, III, injured by the willful or wanton negligence of the defendant T.H. Branson? Answer: Yes.

2. What amount is the plaintiff, John A. Clayton, III, entitled to recover for personal injury from the defendant T.H. Branson individually? Answer: $100.00

3. Did the City of Greensboro, acting under color of law, violate the plaintiff's Constitutional rights to equal protection of the law and due process of law by asserting the defense of governmental immunity in order to deny the plaintiff the right to seek compensation for his damages? Answer: Yes.

4. What amount is the plaintiff, John A. Clayton, III, entitled to recover from the defendant City of Greensboro for deprivation of a Constitutional right? Answer: $1,500,000.00.

The verdicts were returned on 26 September 2003, and the trial court entered judgment accordingly on 13 October 2003. On 23 October 2003 defendants filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), or in the alternative for a new trial, remittitur, or an order denying plaintiff prejudgment interest. On 12 February 2004 the trial court entered an order denying defendants' motion for JNOV, and awarding defendants a new trial. The order stated, in pertinent part that:

[T]he Court finds that the verdict returned by the jury is internally irreconcilable, inconsistent and inexplicable, that the award of $1,500,000.00 is excessive and against the greater weight of the evidence, and . . . is inconsistent with the evidence presented[.] . . . A new trial is warranted on all issues, pursuant to [N.C.G.S. § 1A-1,] Rule 59. . . . The Court DENIES defendants' Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict . . . [The Court] orders that the defendants' Motion for New Trial . . . [be] GRANTED . . .

The parties have appealed from this order; plaintiff appeals the award of a new trial, and defendants cross-appeal the denial of their motions for directed verdict and JNOV.

Standard of Review

We note initially that the trial court's award of a new trial, as well as its denial of JNOV, are both properly before this Court for appellate review. "When a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is joined with a motion for a new trial, it is the duty of the trial court to rule on both motions." Graves v. Walston, 302 N.C. 332, 339, 275 S.E.2d 485, 489 (1981) (citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251, 61 S.Ct. 189, 85 L.Ed. 147, 153 (1940)). Thus, the trial court correctly entered an order with respect to both of defendants' motions. In the interests of judicial economy, we first address the court's denial of defendants' motion for JNOV, as the resolution of this issue may obviate the need to review the trial court's award of a new trial. See Branch v. High Rock Realty, Inc., 151 N.C.App. 244, 252, 565 S.E.2d 248, 253 (2002) ("Since we affirm the trial court's order granting defendants' motion for [JNOV], it is unnecessary for us to address plaintiff's arguments regarding the trial court's conditional grant of a new trial."), disc. review denied, 356 N.C. 667, 576 S.E.2d 330 (2003).

When considering a motion for JNOV:

all the evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. The nonmovant is given the benefit of every reasonable inference . . . from the evidence and all contradictions are resolved in the nonmovant's favor. If there is more than a scintilla of evidence supporting each element of the nonmovant's case, the motion for . . . judgment notwithstanding the verdict should be denied.

Ace Chemical Corp. v. DSI Transports, Inc., 115 N.C.App. 237, 242, 446 S.E.2d 100, 103 (1994) (citations omitted).

Gross Negligence Claim

Defendants argue that the trial court erred by denying their motion for JNOV on plaintiff's claim against Branson for gross negligence or willful and wanton conduct. We agree.

"Aside from allegations of wanton conduct, a claim for gross negligence requires that plaintiff plead facts on each of the elements of negligence, including duty, causation, proximate cause, and damages." Toomer v. Garrett, 155 N.C.App. 462, 482, 574 S.E.2d 76, 92 (2002) (citing Martishius v. Carolco Studios, Inc., 355 N.C. 465, 562 S.E.2d 887 (2002)), disc. review denied, 357 N.C. 66, 579 S.E.2d 576 (2003). In the instant case, the dispositive issue is whether there was sufficient evidence of gross negligence.

Preliminarily, we reject plaintiff's assertion that review of this issue is foreclosed by this Court's opinion in Clayton I. Plaintiff contends that in Clayton I this Court "decide[d] whether Plaintiff's forecast of evidence on the issue of willful or wanton negligence against Defendant Branson was sufficient" and that this ruling became the "law of the case." We disagree.

Regarding the doctrine of "law of the case":

"As a general rule, when an appellate court passes on questions and remands the case for further proceedings to the trial court, the questions therein actually presented and necessarily involved in determining the case, and the decision on those questions become the law of the case." The law of the case doctrine, however, only applies to points actually presented and necessary for the determination of the case and not to dicta.

Kanipe v. Lane Upholstery, 151 N.C.App. 478, 484-85, 566 S.E.2d 167, 171 (2002) (quoting Creech v. Melnik, 147 N.C.App. 471, 473, 556 S.E.2d 587, 589 (2001) (citations omitted)).

Clayton I presented this Court with defendants' appeal from the trial court's denial of their motion for summary judgment. "Generally, a denial of summary judgment,...

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