Estate of Beavers v. Knapp, 07AP-612.

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
Citation889 N.E.2d 181,175 Ohio App.3d 758,2008 Ohio 2023
Docket NumberNo. 07AP-612.,07AP-612.
PartiesESTATE OF BEAVERS et al., Appellees, v. KNAPP et al., Appellants.
Decision Date29 April 2008
889 N.E.2d 181
175 Ohio App.3d 758
ESTATE OF BEAVERS et al., Appellees,
KNAPP et al., Appellants.
No. 07AP-612.
Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District, Franklin County.
Decided April 29, 2008.

[889 N.E.2d 185]

Cooper & Elliott, L.L.C., Charles H. Cooper Jr., and Rex H. Elliott, Columbus, for appellee estate of Robert L. Beavers.

[889 N.E.2d 186]

Hollern & Associates and Edwin J. Hollern, Westerville, for appellants.

Weston Hurd Curley Patterson & Bush, L.L.P., and Kevin R. Bush, Columbus, for appellee Auto-Owners Insurance Company.

FRENCH, Judge.

175 Ohio App.3d 764

{¶ 1} Defendants-appellants, William E. Knapp and Rush Transportation & Logistics, appeal from a final judgment of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, awarding attorney fees and expenses in favor of plaintiff-appellee, the estate of Robert L. Beavers Jr., and incorporating earlier entries, including the entry of judgment on a jury verdict in favor of appellee and the denial of appellants' motion for remittitur and/or a new trial pursuant to Civ.R. 59 and/or judgment notwithstanding the verdict pursuant to Civ.R. 50(B) and/or motion for relief from judgment pursuant to Civ.R. 60(B).

{¶ 2} This action arises out of an October 9, 2001 motorcycle-truck collision that resulted in the death of Robert L. Beavers Jr. Knapp, who was newly

175 Ohio App.3d 765

employed as a truck driver by Rush, was traveling from the Rush facility in Dayton, Ohio to Columbus, where he was scheduled to pick up a load for delivery in New York. In Columbus, Knapp arrived at the intersection where Lockbourne Road forms a "T" with Groveport Road. After beginning to execute a left turn from Lockbourne Road onto Groveport Road, Knapp saw Beavers driving a motorcycle toward him on Groveport Road.

{¶ 3} Beavers applied his brakes and attempted to stop, but lost control of the motorcycle, which went down on its side and slid toward Knapp's truck. Beavers tumbled from the motorcycle, also toward Knapp's truck. In his mirror, Knapp saw the motorcycle go down and Beavers fall from the motorcycle. Rather than stop, Knapp accelerated and continued on, stating: "I just kind of panic[ked] and said, `Oh, my God.' I panicked and I took off." As he "took off," Knapp felt a bump when his rear wheels went up and over something. Reginald Battle, a motorist who was behind Knapp on Lockbourne Road at the time of the accident, testified that Knapp's trailer first hit the motorcycle and then hit Beavers. When Knapp hit Beavers, the truck crushed Beavers's torso, lacerating his heart and filling his thorax with blood. Beavers died as a result of the accident.

{¶ 4} Despite seeing Beavers tumble from his motorcycle and feeling the truck hit something, Knapp decided to continue on. Even though it occurred to him that he probably should not be leaving the scene of the accident, Knapp still intended to pick up his load and make his delivery to New York. Further down Groveport Road, Knapp pulled into a freight yard and exited his truck. Having followed him, Battle confronted Knapp, who denied any knowledge of the accident. Battle then returned to the accident scene and provided the police with Knapp's license plate number.

{¶ 5} In the meantime, Knapp continued on to the shipper to collect his load. After the shipper loaded Knapp's trailer, Knapp asked the shipper to record an earlier time on his bill of lading. Knapp thought that the earlier time might provide him an alibi for the time of the accident. Knapp then proceeded to New York to complete his delivery.

{¶ 6} The following day, Rick Smith, Rush's Director of Operations and Safety, learned of the accident from an article in The Columbus Dispatch and contacted the Columbus Police Department. After verifying that Knapp had been in the area at the time of the accident, Smith ordered the

889 N.E.2d 187

Rush dispatcher to contact Knapp and call him back to Dayton. When Smith spoke to Knapp after he returned to Dayton, Knapp denied any involvement in the accident. Nevertheless, Smith ordered Knapp to attend a meeting with the police detective investigating the accident. Although he initially denied any involvement in the accident to the police, Knapp eventually confessed. After Rush learned of Knapp's confession, it immediately terminated Knapp's employment.

175 Ohio App.3d 766

{¶ 7} Appellee filed suit against appellants on December 18, 2001, alleging claims of negligence, wrongful death, and respondeat superior. In amended pleadings, appellee added claims of negligent hiring against Rush and for punitive damages against both appellants. After an eight-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict on June 11, 2003. The jury found in favor of appellee and awarded compensatory damages of $767,600. The jury also awarded punitive damages of $500,000 against Knapp and $250,000 against Rush. In addition to its general verdict, the jury returned responses to a series of interrogatories. In one interrogatory, the jury found that appellee was entitled to recover attorney fees.

{¶ 8} After trial, both appellee and appellants submitted proposed judgment entries for the trial court's consideration. Ultimately, on June 30, 2003, the trial court filed appellee's proposed judgment entry. After setting forth judgment in accordance with the jury verdict, the judgment entry states, "Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, defendant Rush Transportation is liable for the full award of $1,517,600.00." The judgment entry does not mention attorney fees.

{¶ 9} On July 14, 2003, appellants filed a motion for a new trial, for remittitur, for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and/or for relief from judgment, which the trial court denied on October 15, 2003. The trial court also scheduled a hearing to establish the amount of appellee's attorney fees and expenses.

{¶ 10} On October 29, 2003, Rush's primary insurer voluntarily paid the full amount of the compensatory damages judgment, together with any pre- and post-judgment interest.

{¶ 11} On October 31, 2003, appellants filed their first notice of appeal. At approximately the same time, Knapp filed a petition for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Upon notice of Knapp's bankruptcy petition, this court stayed appellants' appeal on November 18, 2003.

{¶ 12} On January 15, 2004, the bankruptcy court issued a stipulation and agreed order modifying the automatic stay to permit the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine attorney fees, expenses, and costs and to permit appellee to litigate claims against appellants' insurers to satisfy the judgment against appellants. On July 23, 2004, after Knapp was discharged in bankruptcy, the trial court scheduled a hearing on attorney fees. On August 19, 2004, before the scheduled hearing, appellants filed a complaint for a writ of prohibition in the Supreme Court of Ohio, arguing that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to proceed with the attorney fees hearing. The Supreme Court dismissed appellants' complaint on October 13, 2004, and a magistrate conducted the attorney-fees hearing on March 18, 2005. While the parties awaited the magistrate's decision, this court dismissed appellants' first appeal sua sponte because the trial court had not yet determined the amount of attorney fees and expenses to which appellee was entitled.

175 Ohio App.3d 767

{¶ 13} On December 8, 2005, the magistrate, who had since been sworn in as a common pleas court judge, issued his

889 N.E.2d 188

decision on attorney fees and expenses. Appellants filed objections to the magistrate's decision. Because a sitting judge had issued the magistrate's decision, the parties agreed to have the trial judge issue a new decision on attorney fees, based upon the hearing transcript. On July 3, 2007, the trial court issued its decision on attorney fees and expenses, essentially adopting the magistrate's decision and awarding attorney fees in the amount of $239,563.75 and expenses in the amount of $29,944.92, for a total award of $269,508.67. The trial court's award of attorney fees resolved all outstanding issues and rendered all of the trial court's previous decisions and entries final and appealable. Appellants filed their second notice of appeal on July 31, 2007.

{¶ 14} In this appeal, appellants set forth nine assignments of error relating to the trial court's judgment for punitive damages and attorney fees, as follows:

I. The trial court committed prejudicial error in permitting the issue of punitive damages to be included in the trial.

II. The trial court erred by holding [Rush] responsible for the punitive damages attributed to [Knapp] when the jury clearly made separate awards.

III. The award of punitive damages against [Rush] is against the manifest weight of the evidence.

IV. The trial court erred by failing to follow the mandate of Civ.R. 49(B) when entering judgment for plaintiff.

V. The court committed error prejudicial to appellants by not allowing into evidence [Beavers'] prior alcohol related convictions and alcohol related rehabilitation.

VI. The trial court erred by permitting the jury to consider an award of attorney's fees where punitive damages were not appropriate.

VII. The trial court did not have jurisdiction to award attorney's fees or expenses.

VIII. The trial court erred by awarding plaintiff attorney's fees for the probate work undertaken by appellee's counsel to resolve an unrelated dispute over the control of the wrongful death estate.

IX. The trial court abused its discretion and violated the permanent injunction issued by the bankruptcy court with respect to any judgment or award of fees or expenses against [Knapp].

We will address each of appellants' assignments of error in turn.

{¶ 15} By their first assignment of error, appellants contend that the trial court erred by including the issue of punitive damages in the trial. Particularly, appellants argue that punitive damages are not recoverable in a wrongful-death...

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