Lee v. Dunbar

Decision Date14 April 1944
Docket NumberNo. 164.,164.
Citation37 A.2d 178
PartiesLEE v. DUNBAR et al.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Appeal from the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia, Civil Division.

Action by Nathaniel Lee against Francis L. Dunbar and others to recover damages for the alleged unlawful seizure of plaintiff's motor dump truck on a writ of fieri facias. From a judgment for defendants, plaintiff appeals.

Affirmed.

CAYTON, Associate Judge, dissenting.

Arthur L. Willcher, of Washington, D. C. (Simon, Koenigsberger & Young, of Washington, D. C., on the brief), for appellant.

James F. Bird, of Washington, D. C. (H. G. Warburton, of Washington, D. C., on the brief), for appellees.

Before RICHARDSON, Chief Judge, and CAYTON and HOOD, Associate Judges.

RICHARDSON, Chief Judge.

Appellant sued for damages for the alleged unlawful seizure of his motor dump truck on a writ of fieri facias. The writ issued in a former suit between the parties to enforce the payment of a money judgment obtained therein against appellant, which was then unsatisfied. The truck was detained by the United States Marshal for five days. Its return was then ordered by the court, which decided that it was exempt from seizure and sale under our statute. Code 1940, § 15-401.

The complaint was in two counts. One charged that the seizure was wrongful willful; the other that it was willful and malicious. Assuming that this sufficiently charged that defendant had acted maliciously and without probable cause, no pertinent evidence was offered to prove either malice or lack of probable cause, unless we so interpret the statement that, at the time of the levy, appellant's counsel notified appellees' counsel and the deputy marshal that appellant claimed the truck was exempt.

The trial court, in entering judgment for appellees, held that the prior judgment for return of the truck was not res judicata, and decided:

‘The question of exemption with respect to automobiles has never been passed upon in this jurisdiction, no specific exemption being set out in the D.C.Code, consequently, I believe there was no abuse of legal process or wrongful attachment.’

We hold that a plaintiff, to recover compensatory or punitive damages, in an action against the attaching creditor in such a case, must show malice and want of probable cause.

In Perez v. Fernandez, 202 U.S. 80, 26 S.Ct. 561, 565, 50 L.Ed. 942, a suit for damages for the unlawful levy of an attachment, Mr. Justice Day, delivering the majority opinion, said that at common law, the action ‘is substantially one for malicious prosecution, and can be maintained only upon proof of malice and want of probable cause.’

While the rule so stated has not been recognized in a few jurisdictions in actions for compensatory damages, 1 it is supported by the overwhelming majority of courts and text writers. 2

It was followed in Moses & Sons v. Lockwood, 54 App.D.C. 115, 295 F. 936, 33 A.L.R. 1467, although there, as here, the pleader had charged malice and want of probable cause, and this was apparently a controlling factor in the decision.

In some cases courts have made a technical distinction between the wrongful suing out of an attachment and the wrongful levy of an execution, holding that malice, rather than lack of reasonable cause, is the essential issue in the latter. The question is discussed in the title ‘Abuse of Process', Sections 8 and 15, Vol. 1, Am.Jur. We think it is fully answered in cases cited in the preceding footnote. Nor does the question involved here extend to actions of trespass against the levying officer for an excess of authority, or to a statutory liability imposed as a condition of resort to the particular remedy, as in attachment cases where a bond for the payment of actual damages is required.

The real issues hwere were (1) whether the evidence showed malice, and (2) whether appellee had probable cause to levy execution on the truck, although notified that appellant claimed that it was exempt. That the court had quashed the levy, deciding that the truck was exempt, was not res judicata of the existence of malice or want of probable cause, nor was it competent evidence for the plaintiff on these issues. Stewart v. Sonneborn, supra, note 2.

Where the facts are not disputed, ‘what will amount to * * * probable cause in any case is a question of law for the court.’ Mark v. Rich, 43 App.D.C. 182. 3 It may result from a reasonable belief in facts which prove to be unfounded, or from an interpretation of statute which, although rejected, was not unreasonable. 4 Here the facts were undispute.d The question is whether appellee was warranted in construing the exemption statute as inapplicable to a motor dump truck. The statute exempts ‘tools and implements of the debtor's trade or business.' 5 It exempts ‘one horse, mule, or yoke of oxen; one cart, wagon, or dray, and harness for such team.' 6 Whether this language comprehends a motor vehicle has not been authoritatively decided by our courts; like outmoded provisions have been the subject of conflicting decisions by the highest courts of many states. 7 There is substantial authority for the view that motor vehicles are not exempt, and the only federal case we have discovered in which the question was decided in the absence of local decision to be followed, In re McEuen, supra, note 7, denied the claim of exemption.

The question whether a motor vehicle is an ‘implement’ or a ‘cart, wagon, or dray’ under our existing law would be more advantageously settled, with other antiquated provisions of our statute, by the adoption of a modern exemption law. 8 We are not called upon to decide it now. We need merely determine whether there was lack of probable cause, or malice implied from lack of probable cause, since no express malice was shown, in levying upon appellant's truck. In view of the state of the law, and the fact that appellee's interpretation, if incorrect, was not unreasonable, it is obvious that probable cause existed.

In any event, on the evidence before us, nominal damages only could be allowed and the failure to award such damages under the circumstances here present is not a ground for reversal. 9 Without proof of malice the claims for punitive damages 10 and for mental suffering and humiliation 11 were not maintainable. The only evidence of actual damage was the loss of us eof the truck in appellant's business during the five-day period. The judgment had remained unpaid for more than thirty days, it had been so certified to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, and appellant's operator's permit and the registration certifiate of the truck had been suspended. 12 Operation of the truck by appellant or by any other person during the five-day period would have constituted a criminal offense. 13 Under these circumstances recovery would be limited to nominal damages, if any. 14

Affirmed.

CAYTON, Associate Judge (dissenting).

There were two contests between these parties involving the same subject matter. They were heard by different judges. The first was on defendant's motion in an earlier case to declare the truck exempt; the second before the trial judge in this case on defendant's suit for wrongful attachment. tThe first decision, rendered after a hearing on the merits, held the truck to be exempt. It decided the issue, became a finality and was appealable. Barrett v. Commercial Credit Co., 54 App.D.C. 249, 296 .f. 996. But no appeal was taken.

In this case the trial judge decided adversely to plaintiff on two grounds: (1) that because the applicability of the exemption statute to automobiles had never been decided in this jurisdiction there was no abuse of legal process or wrongful attachment, and (2) that because the ruling in the earlier case was thought to be erroneous it was not binding. This was plainly error. It was violative of the rule many times announced in courts throughout the land that an issue once determined between the parties becomes the adjudicated law as between them and may not be collaterally attacked. In a very recent case 1 we called attention to the rule that ‘a right, question or fact distinctly put in issue and directly determined by a court of competent jurisdiction, * * * cannot be disputed in a subsequent suit between the same parties or their privies * * *.’ Hines v. Welch, 57 App.D.C. 371, 376, 23 F.2d 979, quoting from Southern Pac. R. Co. v. United States, 168 U.S. 1, 18 S.Ct. 18, 42 L.Ed. 355. See also Smith v. Law, 56 App.D.C. 86, 10 F.2d 651; Geracy, Inc., v. Hoover, 77 U.S.App.D.C. 55, 133 F.2d 25, 147 A.L.R. 185; Mergardt v. Colonial-American Nat. Bank, App.D.C., 140 F.2d 701.

Even if the judge in the second case thought the first ruling erroneous, it was still binding. See Clegg v. United States, 10 Cir., 112 F.2d 886, where it was held that though the judgment was erroneous, and the court was mistaken as to the facts, or misconceived the law or disregarded public policy, it was still decisive of the controversy, and must be followed. See also Elder v. Frevert, 18 Nev. 446, 5 P. 69, involving this specific question, where it was held that a decision in a former case, holding property exempt, was conclusive upon that issue, in a later proceeding between the same parties.

The judgment here under review was erroneous because it was based upon a fundamental misapplication of the res judicata rule. It seems to me that we should so declare instead of predicating our decision on a theory which was seemingly not presented, considered, or decided in the trial court, and was not argued before us,-plaintiff's alleged failure to prove want of probable cause.

As to this, I question whether ‘probable cause’ was a necessary element of the case, except as it might bear indirectly on the question of damages. The common law forms of action having been abolished, this was simply an action for damages. Rose v. Hawthorne, 55 Miss. 551. Moreover, it could be much more accurately...

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