St. Louis Cnty. v. River Bend Estates Homeowners' Ass'n

Decision Date10 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. SC 92470.,SC 92470.
Citation408 S.W.3d 116
PartiesST. LOUIS COUNTY, Missouri, Appellant, v. RIVER BEND ESTATES HOMEOWNERS' ASSOCIATION, et al., Respondents.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Patricia Redington, Carl W. Becker, Stephanie L. Hill, County Counselor, Clayton, for St. Louis County.

Robert Denlow, Paul G. Henry, Denlow & Henry, Clayton, for Property Owners.

PATRICIA BRECKENRIDGE, Judge.

St. Louis County appeals a judgment that awarded the property owners damages for the county's taking of their real property by eminent domain. St. Louis County claims that the judgment should be reversed and the case remanded because the record of the jury trial on the property owners' exceptions to the condemnation commissioners' report is inadequate for appellate review as portions of the trial proceedings were inaudible or not recorded. It also claims that the trial court abused its discretion in its evidentiary rulings by admitting irrelevant and prejudicial testimony while excluding rebuttal testimonyand evidence of an owner's opinion as to the value of the property. In addition, the county claims that the jury verdict was excessive and unsupported by the evidence. Lastly, the county challenges the trial court's award of heritage value because it claims that the statutes authorizing and implementing an award of heritage value violate article I, section 26; article III, section 38(a); and, article VI, sections 23 and 25 of the Missouri Constitution.

The record is sufficient for this Court to rule on the claims on appeal with confidence. Regarding the county's claims, this Court finds that any errors in the trial court's evidentiary rulings are either not preserved or not prejudicial. This Court also finds that the jury verdict was not excessive so as to require a new trial. Finally, this Court finds that the heritage value statutes are constitutionally valid. Therefore, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

Facts and Procedure

St. Louis County determined that it was necessary to condemn 15 acres of real property located at 1653 Creve Coeur Mill Road in Chesterfield for the Page/Olive connector of the Highway 141 extension project. The 15–acre tract was deeded to Arthur Novel in 1904. While Arthur and his wife, Stella, lived on the property and operated it as a farm until their deaths, it had been vacant since 1968, and there is currently no house on the property. On the date of the taking, the property was heavily wooded with a creek, steep bluff, and sloping terrain.

St. Louis County filed its petition in condemnation in the circuit court of St. Louis County on December 22, 2009, with Arthur and Stella's descendants and their spouses as defendants.1 On February 11, 2010, the trial court entered an order of condemnation, authorizing the acquisition of the property. Because the property owners and the city were unable to agree on the proper compensation, the trial court appointed three commissioners who held a hearing and filed a report. The condemnation commissioners awarded the Novels $320,000 as damages for the acquisition of the property. The Novels filed exceptions to the commissioners' award and requested a jury trial.

Prior to the jury trial, the commissioners filed an amended report with the finding that the Novels had owned the property for more than 50 years. The Novels then filed a motion for assessment of “heritage value,” pursuant to sections 523.061 and 523.039.2 The trial court sustained the motion and awarded heritage value in the amount of $160,000, resulting in a total award of $480,000.

The Novels' exceptions to the commissioners' report were tried by a jury from December 12 to December 15, 2011. After hearing the evidence, the jury assessed damages for the Novels in the amount of $1.3 million. The Novels then filed a motion for assessment of heritage value and entry of judgment. The trial court sustained the Novels' motion over the county's objections that the statutes defining “heritage value” and governing its assessment were constitutionally invalid. The court added $650,000 for heritage value to the jury's verdict and assessed interest under section 523.045. The county filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied.

The county appeals. Because three of its claims challenge the constitutional validity of sections 523.039 and 523.061, the statutes authorizing an award of heritage value when the property has been owned by one family for 50 or more years, this Court has exclusive jurisdiction. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 3.

I. Incomplete Transcript Does not Require a New Trial

In its first point, St. Louis County claims the trial court erred in failing to provide a complete record of the trial proceeding because the transcript of the electronic recording includes portions that are inaudible or omitted. Specifically, when the county received the transcript it had ordered, there were nine unrecorded bench conferences regarding objections and 146 instances of an inaudible word or words. St. Louis County argues that there cannot be meaningful review on appeal without a full and complete transcript of the trial proceedings.

Without a transcript, appellate courts “lack the necessary information to rule with any degree of confidence in the fairness, reasonableness and accuracy of our final conclusion.” Dale v. Dir., Mo. Dept. of Soc. Servs., Family Support & Children's Div., 285 S.W.3d 770, 772 (Mo.App.2009). Consequently, an incomplete record on appeal warrants reversal if the appellant can demonstrate that (1) due diligence was employed in an attempt to correct the shortcomings and (2) the incomplete nature of the record prejudiced him. Skillicorn v. State, 22 S.W.3d 678, 688 (Mo. banc 2000); State v. Borden, 605 S.W.2d 88, 91–92 (Mo. banc 1980).3

The county claims that it was prejudiced on appeal by the failure to record nine bench conferences because the recording device was not running when objections were raised and argued at the bench. The trial court's relocation of the bench microphone during bench conferences created the impression that the discussions at the bench were being recorded, and the court and the attorneys operated as if making a record of objections and arguments. To ameliorate the impact of the lack of a record of the bench conferences, the parties have filed a stipulation reconstructing the substance of the bench conferences. The parties' stipulation eliminates any prejudice the missing record could have caused.

The county also asserts that it was prejudiced by the inaudible parts in the transcript. In its reply brief, the county identified the inaudible parts of the transcript that it claims are material to particular claims of error and hinders its ability to address the issues on appeal. However, it fails to demonstrate that it exercised due diligence in an attempt to correct the inaudible parts. The county also fails to show how the inaudible word or words are, in fact, material. For example, the county asserts that inaudible words in the Novels' closing argument precluded the county from effectively demonstrating the extent to which the Novels utilized improper inflammatory and prejudicial language. In making that argument, it references six parts of the transcript. No objection was made to five statements by the Novels' attorney that contain an inaudible word or words, which the county now claims were improper closing argument. In the only identified instance in which a timely objection was made, the county claimed the Novels' attorney improperly characterized the issues in closing arguments. In that section of the transcript, there are no inaudible words.

During oral arguments, the county clarified that there is not any specific item missing from the transcript that has caused it prejudice but, rather, that the “cumulative effect” of the inaudible portions of the transcript causes it prejudice and precludes meaningful review. However, there is no cumulative effect that is sufficient to demonstrate prejudice. While many words in the transcript are inaudible, the substance of the witnesses' testimony and the statements made by the attorneys and trial court is apparent from the context of the inaudible word or words. Contrary to the county's claim, the inaudible words or phrases are not of key testimony or argument and are not material to the issues raised by the county's claims of error.

The county has failed to demonstrate how the omitted portions of the transcript—the unrecorded bench conferences and the inaudible words—prejudice it, either in a single instance or cumulatively. Without a showing of prejudice, the omitted portions of the transcript do not impede this Court from ruling with confidence on the fairness, reasonableness, and accuracy of the trial court's final decision concerning the points of the county's appeal. The incompleteness of the record does not warrant reversal of the judgment and remand for a new trial. Skillicorn, 22 S.W.3d at 688.

II. Evidentiary Rulings Not an Abuse of Discretion

In four of its points relied on, St. Louis County claims error in the trial court's evidentiary rulings. Generally, a trial court has considerable discretion in admitting or excluding evidence. Moore v. Ford Motor Co., 332 S.W.3d 749, 756 (Mo. banc 2011). This Court gives deference to the trial court's evidentiary rulings and will reverse the trial court's decision about the admission or exclusion of evidence only if the trial court clearly abused its discretion. Kansas City v. Keene Corp., 855 S.W.2d 360, 367 (Mo. banc 1993). When reviewing for an “abuse of discretion,” this Court presumes the trial court's ruling is correct and reverses only when the ruling “is clearly against the logic of the circumstance, is arbitrary and unreasonable, and indicates a lack of careful consideration.” State ex rel. McKeage v. Cordonnier, 357 S.W.3d 597, 599 (Mo. banc 2012) (quoting Green v. Fred Weber, Inc., 254 S.W.3d 874, 880 (Mo. banc 2008)). “If...

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