Hill v. Willis

Decision Date04 April 1968
Docket NumberNo. 24503,24503
Citation224 Ga. 263,161 S.E.2d 281
PartiesLucy R. HILL v. Benjamin WILLIS et al.
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Duplicity is no longer a ground of special demurrer.

2. Where a motion for summary judgment on one issue of a case is overruled, and the case proceeds to trial and where the evidence introduced at such trial authorizes the verdict as to such issue, any error in overruling the motion for summary judgment is harmless.

3. A notice to produce 'all income tax records' for a three-year period is too broad, too indefinite and too extensive and therefore subject to a motion to quash.

4. Where after trial a motion for new trial is filed and overruled by the trial court such judgment establishes as the law of the case that the questions raised by such motion for new trial are without merit unless such judgment is enumerated as error upon appeal.

Lucy R. Hill filed an action against Benjamin Willis and Southern Poultry, Inc. to recover for the wrongful death of her husband who was killed as the result of a collision between his pickup truck and a tractor-trailer owned by the corporate defendant and being operated by the defendant Willis. After a jury verdict for the plaintiff the defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals and obtained a reversal. The plaintiff's petition for certiorari brings the case to this court. For a more complete statement of the case see Willis v. Hill, 116 Ga.App. 848, 159 S.E.2d 145.

Heard & Leverett, Robert M. Heard, E. Freeman Leverett, Elberton, for appellant.

Erwin, Birchmore & Epting, Nickolas P. Chilivis, Rupert A. Brown, Athens, for appellees.

NICHOLS, Justice.

1. The plaintiff's petition as originally filed alleged the negligence of the defendant Willis in the operation of the tractor-trailer as the basis of her cause of action against him, and upon the doctrine of respondeat superior as to the corporate defendant, it being alleged that the acts of Willis were done by him within the scope and performance of his duties as servant and agent of the corporate defendant. By amendment the plaintiff added allegations of negligence as to the corporate defendant alleging the negligent entrustment of the truck to the defendant Willis based upon prior knowledge that he was an incompetent driver 'given to reckless operation of motor vehicles at speeds in excess of lawful limits.'

After the amendment was filed the defendants demurred to the petition as amended as being duplicitous, in that it sought to recover from the corporate defendant for its negligent entrustment of the tractor-trailer to the defendant Willis and from the corporate defendant under the doctrine of respondeat superior. This demurrer was filed and ruled upon before September 1, 1967, the effective date of the Civil Practice Act. This Act provides in Sec. 86 (Ga.L.1966 pp. 609, 671; Code Ann. § 81A-186): 'This Act shall become effective * * * and shall govern all proceedings and actions brought after it takes effect and also all further proceedings and actions then pending, except to the extent that in the opinion of the court its application to a particular action pending when this Act takes effect would not be feasible or would work injustice, in which event the former procedure applies.' Duplicity is no longer a ground of objection to a petition and was not at the time the Court of Appeals ruled in the present case. As was held in Fulton County v. Spratlin, 210 Ga. 447(2), 80 S.E.2d 780: 'As was said in City of Valdosta v. Singleton, 197 Ga. 194, 208, 28 S.E.2d 759, 767, 'a reviewing court should apply the law as it exists at the time of its judgment rather than the law prevailing at the rendition of the judgment under review, and may therefore reverse a judgment that was correct at the time it was rendered and affirm a judgment that was erroneous at the time, where the law has been changed in the meantime and where such application of the new law will impair no vested right under the prior law.' See also Texas Co. v. Brown, 258 U.S. 466(2), 474, 42 S.Ct. 375, 66 L.Ed. 721.' Accordingly, since duplicity is no longer a valid objection to a petition regardless of whether such demurrer might have been good prior to the effective date of the Civil Practice Act, the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the judgment of the trial court overruling such ground of demurrer.

2. The next question to be considered is the judgment of the Court of Appeals reversing the judgment of the trial court overruling the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the issue of 'negligent entrustment.'

The motion for summary judgment dealt with only a part of the case and was overruled. The case then proceeded to trial where a verdict was rendered adverse to the movant in such motion. In Undercofler v. Grantham Transfer Co., 222 Ga. 654, 151 S.E.2d 765, it was held in answer to a certified question that because of the last expression of the legislature in the Appellate Practice Act of 1965 (Ga.L.1965, p. 18, et seq.), a judgment denying a motion for summary judgment was appealable as any other judgment which would have been a final disposition of the case or final as to some material party thereto. Such decision did not deal with an order denying a summary judgment as to some issue of a case which would not have been final as to the cause or some material party. In Undercofler v. Grantham Transfer Co., 114 Ga.App. 868, 152 S.E.2d 900, the Court of Appeals recognized that such a judgment was not reviewable standing alone. Is such a judgment denying a summary judgment on some part of the case which would not be final as to any material party subject to review after a jury verdict adverse to the movant's contentions?

In Sec. 3 of the Act of 1959 providing for summary judgments (Ga.L.1959, p. 235; Code Ann. § 110-1203) it is provided in part: '(N)othing in this Act shall be construed as denying to any party the right to trial by jury where there are substantial issues of fact to be determined.'

With reference to the overruling of a motion for nonsuit it was held in Phillips v. Phillips, 215 Ga. 606, 608, 112 S.E.2d 594, 596: 'Ordinarily, when there has been a denial of a motion for nonsuit, the case proceeds to verdict, and this court reviews the evidence upon a motion for new trial. In such a case this court does not consider the refusal of the judge to grant a nonsuit, but deals with the broader question of whether or not the verdict was contrary to the evidence. Chattanooga Iron & Coal Corp. v. Shaw, 157 Ga. 869, 876, 122 S.E. 597. However, the defendant may waive his right to a motion for new trial and except directly to the refusal of the trial judge to grant a nonsuit. Since any error in denying such a motion is cured if the defendant thereafter introduces evidence supplying the deficiency in the plaintiff's evidence, the evidence as a whole must be examined to determine whether the plaintiff had proved his case as laid at the time of the motion for nonsuit, and if not, whether later evidence supplied the deficiency. Atlantic & Birmingham Ry. Co. v. Sumner, 134 Ga. 673, 68 S.E. 593; Rice v. Ware & Harper, 3 Ga.App. 573, 60 S.E. 301; Ocean Steamship Co. of Savannah v. McDuffie, 6 Ga.App. 671, 65 S.E. 703; Andrews v. Andrews, 91 Ga.App. 659, 660, 86 S.E.2d 669.'

A motion for a summary judgment is somewhat analogous to a motion for a nonsuit, for if, after being overruled, even if done improperly, all the evidence shows that a verdict for the opposing party is authorized, the error is harmless. The purpose of permitting summary judgments is to dispose of unnecessary trials and not to upset a verdict authorized by the evidence merely because at a previous stage of the case a finding may not have been authorized in accordance with such verdict. The Act of 1959, supra, expressly provided that a judgment denying a summary judgment was not reviewable. Then the Appellate Practice Act of 1965, supra, as the last expression of the legislature at that time permitted such a review. Now, however, the Civil Practice Act (Ga.L.1966, p. 609) as amended by the Act of 1967 (Ga.L.1967, pp. 220, 238) (Code Ann. § 81A-156(h)), permits appeals from judgments denying summary judgments only by direct appeal and only when within ten days from such judgment the trial court certifies that such judgment should be subject to review. Accordingly, while an order denying the motion for summary judgment rendered prior to the effective date of the Civil Practice Act is deemed a reviewable judgment after verdict yet, like a nonsuit, all the evidence adduced before the jury will be considered in reviewing such an order, and, if the verdict was authorized, the prior order overruling the motion for summary judgment will be affirmed as constituting, at most, harmless error.

Thus the judgment of the Court of Appeals holding that the trial court erred in overruling the defendants' motion for summary judgment and then erred in admitting evidence on the trial of the case to support the allegations of her petition was error.

While evidence of an admitted fact may be excluded upon the trial of a case, yet the admission of such evidence would not constitute harmful error. See Altman v....

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