Smeal Fire Apparatus Co v. Kreikemeier

Decision Date16 April 2010
Docket NumberNo. S-08-1230.,S-08-1230.
Citation782 N.W.2d 848,279 Neb. 661
PartiesSMEAL FIRE APPARATUS CO., a Nebraska corporation, appellee and cross-appellant,v.Robert KREIKEMEIER and R.K. Manufacturing, Inc., appellants and cross-appellees.
CourtNebraska Supreme Court




Syllabus by the Court

1. Judgments: Jurisdiction: Appeal and Error. A jurisdictional issue that does not involve a factual dispute presents a question of law, which an appellate court independently decides.

2. Contempt. Civil contempt proceedings are instituted to preserve and enforce the rights of private parties to a suit, to compel obedience to orders and decrees made to enforce such rights, and to administer the remedies to which the court has found the parties to be entitled.

3. Contempt. Civil contempt proceedings are remedial and coercive in their nature.

4. Restitution: Intent: Words and Phrases. “Restitution” under Neb.Rev.Stat. § 25-1072 (Reissue 2008) was intended to compensate a complainant's loss or injury caused by a party's violation of an injunction.

5. Constitutional Law: Contempt: Jury Trials. There is no constitutional right to a jury trial in a contempt proceeding when the court awards compensatory relief.

6. Equity: Jury Trials. Under Nebraska law, parties generally do not have a right to a jury trial in actions or proceedings which have as their main object equitable relief.

7. Courts: Equity: Jurisdiction. A court properly exercising equity jurisdiction may completely adjudicate all matters properly presented and grant relief, legal or equitable, as may be required and thus avoid unnecessary litigation.

8. Injunction: Equity: Contempt. An action for an injunction is equitable in nature. And a contempt proceeding to protect and enforce parties' private rights under an injunction is treated as supplemental to and of the same nature as the main action.

9. Courts: Equity: Jurisdiction. When a party has properly invoked the court's equity jurisdiction in a contempt proceeding, the court may resolve all related matters presented to it.

10. Courts: Jurisdiction. A court that has jurisdiction to issue an order also has the power to enforce it.

11. Courts: Jurisdiction. A court can issue orders that are necessary to carry its judgment or decree into effect.

12. Courts. Nebraska courts, through their inherent judicial power, have the authority to do all things reasonably necessary for the proper administration of justice. And this authority exists apart from any statutory grant of authority.

13. Courts: Constitutional Law: Contempt. The power to punish for contempt is incident to every judicial tribune. It is derived from a court's constitutional power, without any expressed statutory aid, and is inherent in all courts of record.

14. Contempt. Compensatory relief that is limited to a complainant's actual losses sustained because of a contemnor's willful contempt is remedial and is not prohibited in a civil contempt proceeding.

15. Contempt: Equity. If a complainant seeks, or a court is considering, a modification of an underlying decree as an equitable sanction for contempt of the court's decree, the alleged contemnor must first have notice that a modification and a finding of contempt will be at issue.

16. Contempt: Notice. When an alleged contemnor has notice and an opportunity to be heard, a court can modify an underlying decree as a remedy for contempt if the violation cannot be adequately remedied otherwise.

17. Contempt. In general, civil contempt sanctions are remedial if they coerce the contemnor's obedience for the benefit of a private party or compensate a complainant for losses sustained.

18. Contempt: Final Orders. Under Nebraska law, an order of contempt in a postjudgment proceeding to enforce a previous final judgment is properly classified as a final order: the contempt order affects a substantial right, made upon a summary application in an action after judgment.

19. Contempt: Appeal and Error. For appeal purposes, the distinction between criminal and civil contempt sanctions has no relevance to whether a party may appeal from a final order in a supplemental postjudgment contempt proceeding.

20. Actions: Appeal and Error. The law-of-the-case doctrine reflects the principle that an issue that has been litigated and decided in one stage of a case should not be relitigated at a later stage.

21. Actions: Appeal and Error. On appeal, the law-of-the-case doctrine is a rule of discretion, not jurisdiction.

22. Actions: Final Orders: Appeal and Error. The law-of-the-case doctrine requires a final order. A party is not bound by a court's findings in an order that it was not required to appeal.

23. Constitutional Law: Courts: Equity: Injunction: Statutes. District courts have equity power under the Nebraska Constitution to grant permanent injunctions. And that power cannot be abridged by statute.

24. Courts: Equity: Injunction. A court of equity has the power to interpret its own injunctive decree if a party later claims that a provision is unclear.

25. Injunction: Appeal and Error. The critical question for appeal purposes is whether a clarification order merely interprets an injunctive decree or whether it modifies the decree in a way that affects a party's substantial right.

26. Injunction: Final Orders. A court's order clarifying a permanent injunction is a final order only if it changes the parties' legal relationship by expanding or relaxing the terms, dissolving the injunction, or granting additional injunctive relief.

27. Contempt. In determining whether a party is in contempt of an order, a court may not expand an earlier order's prohibitory or mandatory language beyond a reasonable interpretation considering the purposes for which the order was entered.

28. Contracts: Intent: Evidence. Contract principles generally apply to the enforcement of consent decrees. And these principles prohibit a court from considering extrinsic evidence of the decree's meaning absent some ambiguity.

29. Contempt: Final Orders: Appeal and Error. An appellate court, reviewing a final judgment or order in a contempt proceeding, reviews for errors appearing on the record.

30. Judgments: Appeal and Error. When reviewing a judgment for errors appearing on the record, the inquiry is whether the decision conforms to the law, is supported by competent evidence, and is neither arbitrary, capricious, nor unreasonable.

31. Contempt: Appeal and Error. A trial court's factual finding in a contempt proceeding will be upheld on appeal unless the finding is clearly erroneous.

32. Contempt: Words and Phrases. When a party to an action fails to comply with a court order made for the benefit of the opposing party, such act is ordinarily a civil contempt, which requires willful disobedience as an essential element. “Willful” means the violation was committed intentionally, with knowledge that the act violated the court order.

33. Contempt: Proof. Under Nebraska law, a party seeking to hold another in contempt of an order has the heavy burden of establishing that contempt beyond a reasonable doubt.

34. Injunction: Notice. Since an injunctive order prohibits conduct under threat of judicial punishment, basic fairness requires that those enjoined receive explicit notice of precisely what conduct is outlawed.

35. Contempt: Notice. A court cannot hold a person or party in contempt unless the order or consent decree gave clear warning that the conduct in question was required or proscribed.

36. Trade Secrets: Injunction: Contempt. Injunctions protecting trade secrets may justify less specificity than other orders or decrees to avoid disclosing a plaintiff's trade secret. Ambiguities in such decrees involving technical or scientific knowledge may require courts to review the context in which the injunction was entered to determine what conduct the defendant reasonably should have known was prohibited. Ambiguities that persist even when considered in the light of the record or after applying other aids of interpretation must be construed in favor of the person or party charged with contempt.

37. Contempt: Costs: Attorney Fees. Costs, including reasonable attorney fees, can be awarded in a contempt proceeding.

38. Actions: Proof. The standard of proof functions to instruct fact finders about the degree of confidence our society believes they should have in the correctness of their factual conclusions for a particular type of adjudication.

39. Actions: Due Process: Proof. In civil cases, when a party's interests are substantial and involve more than the mere loss of money, but obviously do not involve a criminal conviction, due process is satisfied by an intermediate “clear and convincing” standard of proof.

40. Contempt: Criminal Law: Proof. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a criminal trial protection that does not apply to civil contempt proceedings.

41. Contempt: Proof. As of the date of this opinion, outside of statutory procedures imposing a different standard, it is the complainant's burden to prove civil contempt by clear and convincing evidence.

Thomas B. Thomsen, of Sidner, Svoboda, Schilke, Thomsen, Holtorf, Boggy, Nick & Placek, Fremont, for appellants.

Paul R. Elofson, of Fitzgerald, Schorr, Barmettler & Brennan, P.C., L.L.O., Omaha, for appellee.




This is a second appeal from a contempt order. The district court entered a preliminary injunction in 1989 and a permanent injunction in 1990, upon the parties' stipulated settlement. The injunction enjoined the appellants, Robert Kreikemeier and R.K. Manufacturing, Inc. (collectively R.K.), from using or disclosing a manufacturing process used by Smeal Fire Apparatus Co., Inc. (SFAC), in the hydraulic systems of its aerial firefighting ladders. The district court has twice found that R.K. willfully disobeyed its injunction order. In our 2...

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