Ross v. Coleman Co., Inc., No. 16295

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Writing for the CourtBAKES; SHEPARD, C.J., and JOHNSON; HUNTLEY; BISTLINE
Citation114 Idaho 817,761 P.2d 1169
PartiesMichael ROSS, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. COLEMAN COMPANY, INC.; Coast Catamaran Corporation, a corporation, Defendants- Appellants.
Decision Date27 July 1988
Docket NumberNo. 16295

Page 1169

761 P.2d 1169
114 Idaho 817
Michael ROSS, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
COLEMAN COMPANY, INC.; Coast Catamaran Corporation, a corporation, Defendants- Appellants.
No. 16295.
Supreme Court of Idaho.
July 27, 1988.
Rehearing Denied Aug. 28, 1988.

Page 1171

[114 Idaho 819] Imhoff & Lynch, Boise, for defendants-appellants. James B. Lynch argued.

R. Keith Roark, Hailey, for plaintiff-respondent.

BAKES, Justice.

The defendants, Coleman Co., Inc. (Coleman), and Coast Catamaran Corp. (Coast), appeal from the district court's award of a judgment to plaintiff Michael Ross in spite of a jury verdict in favor of the defendants. On June 22, 1984, respondent Ross and Katherine Sateren were sailing a Hobie Cat

Page 1172

[114 Idaho 820] 16 sailboat, built by Coast and marketed by Coleman, on Magic Reservoir in Blaine County, Idaho, when the mast of Ross's sailboat contacted a low-slung Idaho Power Company transmission line which crossed an inlet on the reservoir. Sateren was killed outright, and Ross was seriously injured. Ross filed tort actions against Idaho Power; Coast, the manufacturer of the sailboat; Coleman, the parent corporation of Coast; and Does I through X, alleging that their negligence was the proximate cause of the accident. Before trial Idaho Power settled with Ross. Only Coast and Coleman proceeded to trial. The trial lasted one month.

The jury's special verdict specifically found that the Hobie Cat was not defectively designed or manufactured, and was not unreasonably dangerous. The jury also found in favor of the defendants on the issue of punitive damages. The jury further analyzed the conflicting evidence and found that Idaho Power Company was 75% negligent, that plaintiff Michael Ross was 10% negligent, that defendant Coast was 10% negligent in designing the sailboat, and that defendant Coleman was 5% negligent. Because Ross's negligence, as found by the jury, was equal to or greater than either of the defendants' negligence, he was not entitled to recover against either Coast or Coleman under Idaho's comparative negligence statute, I.C. § 6-801.

After the jury returned its verdict, Ross filed several motions. One motion requested, under I.R.C.P. 49(a), that the district court make additional findings in his favor and to enter a judgment in his favor upon selected parts of the special verdict entered by the jury. The district court did make such requested special "factual" findings, concluding that the negligence of both defendants should be "aggregated," i.e., that the negligence of the subsidiary corporation, Coast, should be imputed to the parent corporation, Coleman, thereby creating a situation where Coleman's 5% negligence, "aggregated" by Coast's 10% negligence, was greater than that of Ross. Ross was thereby granted a judgment by the district court against Coleman, computed at 15% of the amount of the $2,662,376.00 injuries which the jury found that he had incurred. The judgment totaled $399,356.40.

Ross additionally moved for an award of attorney fees against the defendants based upon statements made by the defendants' attorney in his closing statement. The district court granted the motion and awarded Ross $100,000 in attorney fees and in excess of $17,000 in costs against Coleman for the alleged misconduct of their defense counsel, 1 relying on I.C. § 12-121, I. R.C.P. 54(d) and 54(e), and I.C. § 7-601.

Ross also moved for a new trial under I.R.C.P. 59(a). Among the reasons stated in Ross's motion were the alleged misconduct in defendants' closing statement and the claim that the damages awarded by the jury were inadequate. The district court did not grant the motion, but rather stated that unless the defendants paid the full amount of the judgment entered by the court, plus costs and attorney fees, as ordered, within 28 days, the plaintiff was given the option to choose a new trial on the issue of liability only. 2 The defendants appealed from this order without paying

Page 1173

[114 Idaho 821] within the 28-day period. The plaintiff did not elect to take a new trial.

On appeal, the appellants have raised two issues: (1) that the district court erred in aggregating the negligence, i.e., by imputing and adding the 10% negligence of Coast to the 5% negligence of Coleman, thereby increasing Coleman's negligence to 15%, which was greater than that of Michael Ross's negligence, thus in effect reversing the jury's special verdict; and (2) that the district court erred in awarding attorney fees and costs under I.C. § 12-121, I. R.C.P. 54(d) and (e) and I.C. § 7-601. We conclude that the district court erred in overruling the jury's verdict, imputing Coast's negligence to Coleman, and accordingly we reverse. We also conclude that the district court erred in awarding attorney fees and costs.

I
THE TRIAL AND JURY VERDICT

Ross's complaint against Coast and Coleman alleged that the defendants "carelessly and negligently designed, constructed, manufactured, tested, certified, sold and delivered a certain boat known as a 'Hobie Cat 16' ...," which was involved in the accident.

"That defendants ... had knowledge of the negligent and defective design and manufacture of the Hobie Cat boat and mast by virtue of various notices received by these defendants concerning prior accidents.... Said defect consisted of improper design of the boat and mast such that upon contact with a known danger, to wit, electrical wires of any sort, the electricity would enter the boat and cause grave injury or death to those on board. That defendants having full knowledge of this condition of the boat, failed to correct the condition and failed to supply warnings of the dangers to users of the boat, wholly disregarding the likelihood of serious harm to others, all of which proximately resulted in the electrocution of Katherine Kristin Sateren, a passenger on the boat, and the serious and grave injuries to Michael Ross as herein described."

The plaintiff's evidence of negligence against the defendant Coast was primarily that Coast negligently designed the Hobie Cat 16 sailboat with a mast and a substantial portion of the boat being made primarily of metal which conducted electricity and which could injure those on board. The major thrust of plaintiff's claim against the defendant Coleman was that Coleman, after acquiring the controlling stock interest in Coast in 1976, became aware of the defects in the boat, nevertheless marketed the boat and did not take the necessary steps to compel its subsidiary, Coast, to redesign the boat.

The major thrust of the defendants Coast and Coleman's evidence was to show that the primary cause of the accident was the negligence of Idaho Power in not elevating its low-hanging power lines, and also the negligence of plaintiff Ross who, knowing that the mast would conduct electricity, nevertheless attempted to sail his boat under the low-hanging power lines at a time when his faculties were impaired from drinking alcohol. The jury, after hearing all of the conflicting evidence, resolved the conflicts in favor of the defendants, returning a verdict which found that the Hobie Cat 16 was not defectively designed; rejected plaintiff's claim to punitive damages; and held that Ross's negligence was greater than Coleman's, and equal to Coast's, thus precluding Ross from obtaining any judgment against either Coast or Coleman.

As a preliminary matter, we must consider whether the jury's findings are supported by substantial competent evidence. If they are, then both the trial court and this Court are bound by the jury's verdict. Quick v. Crane, 111 Idaho 759, 727 P.2d 1187 (1986); Dinneen v. Finch, 100 Idaho 620, 603 P.2d 575 (1979). When reviewing a jury verdict the evidence adduced at trial must be construed in a light most favorable to the party who prevailed in the jury's verdict. Nelson v. Northern Leasing Co., 104 Idaho 185, 188, 657 P.2d 482, 485 (1983) ("Here the evidence viewed from the most favorable standpoint in support of the jury's verdict

Page 1174

[114 Idaho 822] can be held to demonstrate substantial negligence on the part of the Nelsons."); Mann v. Gonzales, 100 Idaho 769, 605 P.2d 947 (1980). Viewing the evidence most favorably to support the jury's verdict, the record demonstrates that in June of 1984 Ross caused his Hobie Cat 16 sailboat, which was designed and manufactured by defendant Coast, to make contact with a power line owned and operated by Idaho Power Company, which was located approximately 26 feet above the water, 14 feet below Idaho Power's 40-foot standard for power lines crossing bodies of water in which sailing boats operate. Idaho Power knew of the substandard line, but took no action to remedy the defect.

There was evidence that Michael Ross had previously sailed into the cove over which the power lines were located, that he had prior knowledge of their existence, and that he had been drinking. A fisherman who observed the boat sail into the cove testified that the boat had stopped for several minutes before he spotted smoke from the accident. Further evidence indicated that the boat had been partially de-rigged (sails had been taken down) and there was expert testimony that from the position of Sateren's body and the position of burn marks on the boat, that neither of the victims had been on the trampoline upon which the crew rides that is strung between the two hulls of the Hobie Cat 16. Furthermore, expert testimony was presented from which a jury could reasonably have inferred that one or both of the passengers debarked and were attempting to push the boat away from the power lines when the accident occurred. 3 Thus, the jury could reasonably have concluded that even after Ross became aware that his mast had become entangled in the power lines, he knowingly and negligently attempted to remove it without having the power in the line deactivated, thus causing his own injuries.

The evidence further demonstrated that at the time of...

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1 practice notes
  • Layton v. Eagle Rock Timber, Inc., Case No. 4:17-cv-00259-DCN
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Idaho
    • October 29, 2018
    ...a refusal to negotiate a settlement when deciding whether to award attorney fees is prohibited under Idaho law."); Ross v. Coleman Co., 761 P.2d 1169, 1188 (Idaho 1988), aff'd, 804 P.2d 325 (1991) ("The failure to enter into or conduct settlement negotiations is not a basis for awarding att......
1 cases
  • Layton v. Eagle Rock Timber, Inc., Case No. 4:17-cv-00259-DCN
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Idaho
    • October 29, 2018
    ...a refusal to negotiate a settlement when deciding whether to award attorney fees is prohibited under Idaho law."); Ross v. Coleman Co., 761 P.2d 1169, 1188 (Idaho 1988), aff'd, 804 P.2d 325 (1991) ("The failure to enter into or conduct settlement negotiations is not a basis for awarding att......

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