Wood v. Benedictine Soc. of Alabama, Inc.

Decision Date29 July 1988
Citation530 So.2d 801
PartiesKathryn WOOD v. The BENEDICTINE SOCIETY OF ALABAMA, INC., et al. The BENEDICTINE SOCIETY OF ALABAMA, INC., et al. v. Kathryn WOOD. 86-1355, 86-1430.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

David Gespass of Gespass & Johnson, Birmingham, for appellant/cross-appellee.

Harold F. Herring and Rennie Stetler of Lanier, Shaver & Herring, Huntsville, and Thomas A. Caddell and Philip Shanks, Jr., Decatur, for appellees/cross-appellants.

ADAMS, Justice.

The plaintiff, Kathryn Wood, appeals from judgments based on directed verdicts entered for the defendants, Bishop Joseph G. Vath, 1 a corporation sole; Abbot Hilary Dreaper; and the Benedictine Society of Alabama, Inc. The defendants cross-appealed. We affirm.

On June 15, 1984, Father Edward Markley entered an abortion clinic in Huntsville, Alabama, with two cans of red paint he had purchased with his own money. After entering the clinic, he damaged three suction machines and injured Kathryn Wood. Ms. Wood filed a lawsuit against Father Markley on March 17, 1986, to recover for the injuries she had received. She also sued Bishop Joseph G. Vath, both individually and as a corporation sole; Abbot Hilary Dreaper; and the Benedictine Society, on the theory that these parties were the principals or masters of Father Markley. 2

Discovery began on May 8, 1986. A pretrial conference was scheduled for June 19, 1986, but the conference was cancelled because there were several outstanding discovery motions and some of the defendants had not been served. During the discovery phase, the plaintiff made several attempts to conduct discovery, but the plaintiff claimed that some of the defendants had failed to respond or fully answer the plaintiff's discovery requests. As a result, on September 30, 1986, the plaintiff filed a motion to compel discovery and filed another such motion on October 31, 1986. The court granted both motions. Subsequently, the plaintiff moved for sanctions against certain defendants.

The pretrial conference was ultimately held on February 9, 1987. At the conference, the trial judge ruled on several outstanding motions, including the plaintiff's motion for sanctions. The judge also noted that discovery had not been completed at that time, but he permitted discovery to continue until trial on the condition that he would not grant a continuance due to incomplete discovery. Trial was set for March 16, 1987. On February 19, 1987, the plaintiff moved for a continuance because several discovery requests were still unanswered. The trial court refused to grant the motion.

At trial, after the close of the plaintiff's case, all of the defendants, except Father Markley, moved for a directed verdict. The trial court granted directed verdicts for Bishop Joseph G. Vath, a corporation sole; Abbot Hilary Dreaper; and the Benedictine Society. Each motion was granted on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to present a scintilla of evidence that Father Markley was acting as an agent or servant within the scope of his authority when he destroyed the suction machines and injured Ms. Wood. The following evidence was presented at trial regarding the principal/agent or master/servant relationship of Father Markley and these defendants:

1. Father Markley was a Benedictine monk and a member of the Benedictine Society;

2. Abbot Hilary Dreaper was Father Markley's superior in his capacity as a monk;

3. The Benedictine Society authorized its monks to become pastors of churches in certain counties when the Catholic Church was in need;

4. At the request of Bishop Vath, the Benedictine Society had given Father Markley permission to become the pastor of Our Lady of the Shoals Catholic Church in Tuscumbia, Alabama;

5. In November 1983, Bishop Vath asked Father Markley to serve as the "Coordinator of Pro-Life Activities" for the diocese, which task Father Markley accepted;

6. Bishop Vath was Father Markley's superior in Markley's work as pastor and coordinator of pro-life activities, and he had the authority to remove Father Markley from these positions;

7. On one previous occasion in May 1984, Father Markley had entered an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, and damaged three suction machines with a sledge hammer;

8. Both Bishop Vath and Abbot Dreaper were aware of Father Markley's actions and, although they expressed written disapproval of his conduct, neither removed Father Markley from his position as pastor or pro-life coordinator.

9. Bishop Vath wrote several letters to Father Markley that were signed "Most Reverend Joseph G. Vath, D.D., Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama."

10. Father Markley drove a car owned by the Benedictine Society when he went to the clinic on the morning of June 15, 1984.

Trial continued on the claims against Father Markley and Bishop Vath, individually. The court entered a default judgment against Father Markley because he failed to respond to the discovery requests. The jury determined the damages and awarded Ms. Wood $17,500.00 in compensatory damages and $100,000.00 in punitive damages. The jury found no liability on the part of Bishop Vath, individually. On March 24, 1987, the court entered a final judgment.

The plaintiff moved for a new trial on April 14, 1987, and on May 28, 1987, the defendants moved to strike the plaintiff's motion for a new trial. The court denied the plaintiff's motion for a new trial on June 4, 1987, but the court did not specifically rule on the defendants' motion to strike.

Ms. Wood is appealing from the judgments based on directed verdicts for Bishop Vath, a corporation sole; Abbot Dreaper; and the Benedictine Society. The following issues are raised on appeal:

I. Did the trial court abuse its discretion by denying the plaintiff's motion for a continuance?

II. Did the trial court err in directing a verdict for a) Bishop Joseph G. Vath, a corporation sole; b) Abbot Hilary Dreaper; and c) the Benedictine Society?

In addition, the defendants cross-appealed and raised the following issues:

III. Was the plaintiff's appeal timely in light of the fact that the trial court failed to rule on the defendants' motion to strike the plaintiff's motion for a new trial?

IV. Was the plaintiff's appeal improper because the defendants were sued as joint tort-feasors and judgment had already been entered against Father Markley? 3

I.

(Appeal)

The plaintiff claims that the trial court abused its discretion by denying her motion for a continuance. As grounds for the motion the plaintiff had asserted that the defendants had delayed responding to the discovery requests and that she did not have sufficient time to prepare for trial. In addition, the plaintiff claimed that the fact that the trial court waited until the pretrial conference to rule on various outstanding motions further delayed her ability to prepare her case. Finally, the plaintiff claimed that on the day following the pretrial conference, one defendant telephoned the plaintiff and stated that if all parties agreed, the court would permit a continuance of the trial date. Based, she said, on the belief that the trial was to be continued, the plaintiff cancelled a scheduled deposition. However, one of the defendants later refused to agree to the continuance. The plaintiff asserted that these were sufficient reasons to justify a continuance. Nonetheless, the only disadvantage the plaintiff claimed as a result of the trial court's denial of her motion was that she was not able to conduct discovery in the manner she would have chosen pursuant to Rule 26, A.R.Civ.P.

The trial judge has broad discretion to grant or deny a motion for a continuance. Mobile Cab & Baggage Co. v. Busby, 277 Ala. 292, 169 So.2d 314 (1964). However, continuances are not favored, and this Court will not reverse the trial court's decision unless there has been a clear abuse of discretion. See Perdue v. Mitchell, 373 So.2d 650 (Ala.1979). In the instant case, the trial court ruled on several outstanding motions at the pretrial conference. Furthermore, the court noted that there were still some outstanding discovery requests at the time of the pretrial conference. The court permitted discovery to continue until immediately prior to trial on the condition that "continuances [would] not be granted on the grounds of incomplete discovery." Although the trial judge clearly had the authority to grant a continuance, the judge specifically stated in his pretrial order that he would not grant a continuance based on incomplete discovery. That is exactly the ground upon which the plaintiff based her request for a continuance. We find no abuse of discretion in the court's decision to deny a continuance.

II.

(Appeal)

The plaintiff's second argument is that the trial court erred in directing the verdicts in favor of Bishop Vath, a corporation sole; Abbot Hilary Dreaper; and the Benedictine Society. The plaintiff claims that there was a scintilla of evidence that each of these defendants was the master or principal of Father Markley and that they were negligent in their hiring and supervision. We disagree.

As to the directed verdict for Bishop Vath, a corporation sole, we find no evidence in the record to support the conclusion that Bishop Vath was acting as a corporation sole in any of his actions involving Father Markley. See Ala.Code 1975, § 10-4-1. The only evidence presented by the plaintiff were some letters to Father Markley from Bishop Vath on "Bishop's Office" letterhead in which the Bishop signed the correspondence "Most Reverend Joseph G. Vath, D.D., Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama." Without more, we conclude that the signature on the letters, absent the designation "a corporation sole," does not even create an inference that Bishop Vath was acting in his corporate capacity.

Furthermore, a corporation sole has very specific functions, see Ala.Code 1975, § 10-4-4, which relate to conducting a business, not ecclesiastical duties. Section 10-4-4 sets forth the...

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