Southern Ry. Co. v. Lawson, 44177

Decision Date12 March 1987
Docket NumberNo. 44177,44177
Citation353 S.E.2d 491,256 Ga. 798
CourtGeorgia Supreme Court

Burt DeRieux, Eileen M. Crowley, Greene, Buckley, DeRieux & Jones, Atlanta, Emory Robinson, Gainesville, for Southern Ry. Co.

William C. Lanham, Clark H. McGehee, Lanham & McGehee, Atlanta, for Ray H. Lawson et al.

GREGORY, Justice.

A jury in Stephens Superior Court found a release agreement executed by Southern Railway Company (Southern) and Ray and Mattie Lawson was invalid. Southern appeals the judgment. We affirm.

On October 12, 1980, the Lawsons son was struck and killed by a Southern train. In the period following the son's death, the Lawsons were extremely distraught. Both were taking valium prescribed by a doctor.

On October 15, 1980, the Lawsons entered into a contingency fee contract with attorney Dan Pressley, who sent a letter to Southern stating he was representing them. Soon after, a Toccoa funeral director contacted the Lawsons about a meeting with a Southern claims agent. Mr. Lawson was told the agent could not meet with the couple directly if they were represented by counsel. The Lawsons discharged Pressley and obtained a letter from the attorney acknowledging the termination of representation.

On October 20, 1980, the Lawsons met with a Southern agent at the funeral home. The couple accepted $7,500 and signed a release. The Lawsons, both of whom could read, did not read the agreement. They later stated they had believed the $7,500 was "sympathy money" from the railroad and did not understand they were releasing Southern from liability in the death of their son. By January 1981, all of the $7,500 had been spent by the Lawsons.

In February 1981, Mrs. Lawson entered a contingency fee employment contract with attorney James E. Cornwell, Jr. to represent her in connection with her son's death. The railroad sent a copy of the release to Cornwell. His employment with Mrs. Lawson was terminated in July 1981.

Soon after, the Lawsons entered into another contingency fee contract with attorney Christopher Duncan. On October 5, 1982, attorney Duncan sent a letter to Southern stating: "Mr. and Mrs. Lawson are prepared to immediately tender to Southern Railway through this office the sum of $7,500 plus interest and rescind the release contract executed on or about October 20, 1980. Please compute the proper amount and inform this office so that said sum may be forwarded to you." Duncan wrote Southern again on October 9, 1982 stating the Lawsons were rescinding and cancelling the release agreement, and that they had paid $7,500 into the Stephens Superior Court registry as tender. On October 11, 1982, the Lawsons filed a wrongful death suit in Stephens County.

On October 18, 1982, counsel for Southern wrote the Lawsons' attorney a letter stating: "The rescission and cancellation by your clients of the release agreement executed by them with Southern Railway Company is noted and rejected. The release agreement was fully understood, was fair, and the consideration for it was under the circumstances more than sufficient."

The $7,500 remained in the court registry until October 1983 when the suit was voluntarily dismissed by the Lawsons and the money was withdrawn. The Lawsons filed the instant action in Fulton County in December 1983, but did not place any money into the court registry. The suit was later transferred to Stephens County.

The case was bifurcated to consider the issue of the validity of the release before reaching the railroad's alleged liability in the death of the Lawsons' son. The release issue was submitted to a jury, which returned a general verdict finding the release invalid. The trial court entered judgment declaring the release void and unenforceable and ordering the Lawsons to pay $7,500 plus interest into the court registry as restitution to Southern.

1. Southern contends the trial court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict.

(a) Southern argues no jury question remained following the Lawsons' presentation as to application of OCGA § 23-2-2, which provides: "Great inadequacy of consideration, joined with great disparity of mental abilities in contracting a bargain, may justify equity in setting aside a sale or contract."

OCGA § 9-11-50(a) provides in part that "[i]f there is no conflict in the evidence as to any material issue and the evidence introduced, with all reasonable deductions therefrom, shall demand a particular verdict, such verdict shall be directed." In determining whether any conflict in the evidence exists, the court must construe the evidence most favorably to the party opposing the motion for directed verdict. The standard used to review the grant or denial of a directed verdict is the 'any evidence' test. Skelton v. Skelton, 251 Ga. 631(4), 308 S.E.2d 838 (1983).

Southern argues there was no evidence presented to show a disparate mental ability between anyone representing the railroad and the Lawsons at the time of the contract. However, the Lawsons showed they were in a highly emotional state following the death of the son, and that treatment for their stress included valium. Furthermore, a psychologist who tested the Lawsons found their I.Q. levels to be in the "mentally defective" range. The railroad agent involved, on the other hand, was college educated and had some 20 years experience in claims investigation and settlement.

Reviewing the denial of the motion on this ground under the 'any evidence' standard, we find the trial court did not err.

(b) Southern also argues a verdict should have been directed because the Lawsons made no legally sufficient tender of restitution of the $7,500 to the railroad, and that the attempted tender was untimely.

"[T]ender of the amount due is waived when the party entitled to payment, by declaration or conduct ... proclaims that, if tender of the amount due is made, an acceptance of it will be refused." Hefner v. Hall, 223 Ga. 148, 150-51, 154 S.E.2d 197 (1967). See also Smith v. Standard Oil Co., 226 Ga. 339(1), 175 S.E.2d 14 (1970); B-X Corp. v. Jeter, 210 Ga. 250(2), 78 S.E.2d 790 (1953). "The law does not require a useless act." Tendler v. Thompson, 256 Ga. 633, 352 S.E.2d 388 (1987).

Southern, in its letter of October 18, 1982 to the Lawsons' attorney, clearly indicated it considered the release a valid agreement and would not agree to rescission or cancellation. This declaration together with Southern's utter disregard of the Lawsons' efforts to make tender under the circumstances made it plain enough any proper tender would be refused.

(c) Finally, Southern contends the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict based on grounds that evidence of voluntary intoxication alone, if unknown to the opposite party in an agreement, is insufficient as a matter of law to invalidate a contract.

The argument is based on OCGA § 13-3-25, which provides: "A contract made by an intoxicated person is not void, though the intoxication is brought about by the other party, but is merely voidable at the election of the intoxicated person and may be ratified by him either expressly or by conduct inconsistent with its rescission." Southern claims there is no evidence the railroad agent knew the Lawsons were under the influence of valium when the release was executed, and thus the statute is not applicable to this case.

The Lawsons did not contend the release was voidable at their election because of intoxication. Thus it was not error to deny the motion.

2. Southern also contends the trial court erred in applying...

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    • United States
    • Georgia Supreme Court
    • November 9, 1998
    ...evidence offered renders the desired inference more probable than it would be without the evidence. [cits.]." Southern R. Co. v. Lawson, 256 Ga. 798, 802(4), 353 S.E.2d 491 (1987). Smith's desired inferences were that Smith had no motive to murder Javies, and that Javies had fired at him fi......
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    ...examination or treatment is not hearsay and is admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule. See OCGA § 24-3-4; Southern R. Co. v. Lawson, 256 Ga. 798, 353 S.E.2d 491 (1987); Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Hendrix, 119 Ga.App. 770, 771-772(2), 168 S.E.2d 862 5. The mother's last enumeration of err......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Evidence - Marc T. Treadwell
    • United States
    • Mercer University School of Law Mercer Law Reviews No. 48-1, September 1996
    • Invalid date
    ...School of Law (J.D., cum laude, 1981). Member, State Bar of Georgia. 1. 221 Ga. App. 83, 470 S.E.2d 748 (1996). 2. Southern Ry. v. Lawson, 256 Ga. 798, 353 S.E.2d 491 (1987). 3. 221 Ga. App. at 84, 470 S.E.2d at 750. 4. See Fed. R. Evid. 403. 5. 221 Ga. App. at 84, 470 S.E.2d at 750. 6. Id.......

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