Stokes v. the Mont. Thirteenth Judicial Dist. Court, OP 11–0212.

Docket NºNo. OP 11–0212.
Citation259 P.3d 754, 2011 MT 182, 361 Mont. 279
Case DateAugust 01, 2011
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana

361 Mont. 279
259 P.3d 754
2011 MT 182

Dennis STOKES, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Peter Andrew Carter, Plaintiff and Petitioner,
The MONTANA THIRTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, and The Honorable Russell C. Fagg, Presiding Judge, Respondents.

No. OP 11–0212.

Supreme Court of Montana.

Aug. 1, 2011.

[361 Mont. 280]

[259 P.3d 755]


¶ 1 This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Petition for Writ of Supervisory Control. Plaintiff asks this Court to exercise supervisory control, pursuant to M.R.App. P. 14, over the Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court, and to conclude the District Court's order of March 17, 2011, granting Defendant Ford Motor Company's Motion in Limine, was in error. The underlying case arises from a motor vehicle accident in which Peter Carter was killed during an ensuing rollover. Plaintiff Dennis Stokes, as Personal Representative of Carter's Estate (“Stokes”), filed a wrongful death and survival action against three defendants: the vehicle manufacturer, Ford; the auto rental company, Overland West, Inc. (“Overland”); and the other driver involved in the accident, Todd Durham.

¶ 2 Stokes alleged Durham was negligent in the operation of his vehicle for causing the

[259 P.3d 756]

initial crash, which Durham subsequently admitted. Stokes's claims against the other two defendants were premised on the theory that the initial impact caused only minor injuries, but the seatbelt in the vehicle slackened and spooled out during the rollover, allowing Carter to be partially ejected from the vehicle and causing his fatal head injury. Stokes alleged negligence in Ford's design, development and testing of its occupant restraint system, and asserted a claim based in strict products liability for Ford's defective design of the system. He alleged Overland was negligent for failing to maintain the vehicle in a safe condition, and strictly liable for placing the defective vehicle in the stream of commerce.

¶ 3 Following the reasoning in Chapman v. Mazda Motor of Am., 7 F.Supp.2d 1123 (D.Mont.1998), the District Court ruled that § 61–13–106, MCA, did not prohibit evidence of seatbelt use or nonuse in products liability claims, but did prohibit such evidence in negligence claims. The court concluded that it would be too confusing for the jury to admit the evidence on the products liability claims but exclude it on the negligence claims, even with an appropriate limiting instruction. The court thus informed Stokes that if he planned on using evidence of seatbelt use or nonuse in his strict liability claims against Ford and [361 Mont. 281] Overland, he would be required to drop his negligence claims against all three defendants.

¶ 4 Stokes petitioned this Court for supervisory control on the basis that the District Court was proceeding based on a mistake of law, thereby causing a substantial injustice, for which he has an inadequate remedy on appeal. M.R.App. P. 14. We ordered the District Court and/or the defendants to respond to Stokes's petition. Ford and Overland filed responses. We thereafter classified the matter for oral argument and directed the parties to file supplemental briefs. We heard oral argument on June 28, 2011, and the matter is now ripe for disposition. We address two questions in resolving this petition: whether this is an appropriate case for exercise of supervisory control and whether the District Court erred in granting Ford's motion in limine. The latter inquiry turns on whether § 61–13–106, MCA, precludes evidence of seatbelt use in the trial of Stokes's negligence or products liability claims, or both.

1. Propriety of Supervisory Control

¶ 5 Article VII, Section 2(2) of the Montana Constitution grants this Court “general supervisory control over all other courts.” Supervisory control is an extraordinary remedy, reserved for extraordinary circumstances. Hegwood v. Mont. Fourth Jud. Dist. Court, 2003 MT 200, ¶ 6, 317 Mont. 30, 75 P.3d 308. We will assume supervisory control over a district court to direct the course of litigation if the court is proceeding based on a mistake of law, which if uncorrected, would cause significant injustice for which appeal is an inadequate remedy. Simms v. Mont. Eighteenth Jud. Dist. Court, 2003 MT 89, ¶ 18, 315 Mont. 135, 68 P.3d 678. Whether supervisory control is appropriate is a case-by-case decision. Id. Acceptance of supervisory control is limited to cases involving purely legal questions, in which the district court is proceeding under a mistake of law causing a gross injustice or constitutional issues of statewide importance are involved. M.R.App. P. 14(3); Plumb v. Mont. Fourth Jud. Dist. Court, 279 Mont. 363, 369, 927 P.2d 1011, 1015 (1996) (superseded on other grounds). “Judicial economy and inevitable procedural entanglements [have been] cited as appropriate reasons for this Court to issue a writ of supervisory control.” Truman v. Mont. Eleventh Jud. Dist. Court, 2003 MT 91, ¶ 15, 315 Mont. 165, 68 P.3d 654. In such an instance, “the denial of a speedy remedy by supervisory control would be a denial of justice.” Plumb at 370, 927 P.2d at 1016.

¶ 6 In Truman, we accepted supervisory control to determine whether [361 Mont. 282] a defendant could present evidence of a subsequent accident with a non-party to disprove the defendant's liability for damages. We cited Plumb, where we held that were the case to proceed to trial under the claimed mistake of law, “the course of discovery, the cost of preparation, and the trial itself would be adversely affected.” Truman, ¶ 15 (citing Plumb at 370, 927 P.2d at 1015–16). In both

[259 P.3d 757]

cases, we noted the additional time and expense for resolution of the controlling issues on appeal and the “inevitable” subsequent litigation. Plumb at 370, 927 P.2d at 1016; Truman, ¶ 15.

¶ 7 While we exercise supervisory control “only in extraordinary circumstances,” Safeco v. Mont. Eighth Jud. Dist. Court, 2000 MT 153, ¶ 14, 300 Mont. 123, 2 P.3d 834, we conclude such circumstances are present in the instant case. Stokes presents a purely legal question: whether § 61–13–106, MCA, bars evidence of seatbelt use in his claims alleging defects in the Ford Explorer's seatbelt system. This is a question of first impression, limited to construction of the statute, and the answer will govern whether the trial proceeds on one or both of Stokes's legal theories. If the District Court is affirmed, Stokes requests an order allowing bifurcated trials of his negligence and products liability claims. Ford, on the other hand, seeks a ruling barring evidence of seatbelt use altogether or affirming the trial court's order requiring Stokes to elect between his two legal theories.

¶ 8 If the District Court is reversed and both theories are allowed to advance, preparation and presentation of the case will be significantly affected. Unlike the run-of-the-mill evidentiary ruling, e.g. Sluggett v. Phillips, 2006 Mont. LEXIS 370, this is not an issue that may be judged in the hindsight of trial to determine prejudice to a party's substantive rights. Rather, the ruling may determine whether the Plaintiff's combined claims will be tried at all, alone or together. The course of litigation will be dramatically altered depending on resolution of the question here presented. “If incorrect, the [district] court's conclusions will impact all aspects of the proceeding from preparation for trial to settlement negotiations and the trial itself.” Truman, ¶ 16. An appeal would be an inadequate remedy given the costs and delay associated with the...

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