Wood v. Cooley

Decision Date02 February 2012
Docket NumberNo. 2010–CA–00395–COA.,2010–CA–00395–COA.
Citation78 So.3d 920
PartiesChuck WOOD, Appellant v. Jason Chad COOLEY, Appellee.
CourtMississippi Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Jason D. Herring, Henderson McKelvy Jones, Tupelo, attorneys for appellant.

J. Mark Shelton, Jana L. Dawson, attorneys for appellee.

Before LEE, C.J., ISHEE and ROBERTS, JJ.

ROBERTS, J., for the Court:

¶ 1. On November 8, 2006, Jason Chad Cooley (Cooley) filed a complaint for alienation of affection against Chuck Wood. The two-day trial, which began on September 8, 2009, in Lee County Circuit Court, resulted in a $100,000 verdict in favor of Cooley. Subsequently, Wood filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and discovery sanctions or, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial or a remittitur. The circuit court denied Wood's motions on February 8, 2010. It is from this denial that Wood now appeals.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. Cooley and Jennifer Cooley (Jennifer) were married on February 9, 2002. Each had children from previous relationships, but they had one daughter together. During the marriage, Jennifer was employed by Wilburn Oil Company handling accounts receivable. Her supervisor at Wilburn Oil Company was Wood. While still employed at Wilburn Oil Company, Wood and Jennifer began exchanging flirtatious e-mails and instant messages. Who initiated the first message is disputed. Although both were married to other people at the time, their flirtation eventually progressed into a sexual relationship beginning in January 2006.

¶ 3. In February 2006, after four years of marriage, Cooley and Jennifer separated. Citing habitual cruel and inhuman treatment or irreconcilable differences, Jennifer filed for divorce on March 17, 2006. Ten days later, Cooley, still unaware of the adulterous affair between Jennifer and Wood, filed a counterclaim for divorce on the ground of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment or irreconcilable differences. Jennifer and Wood continued their affair until May 2006 when Wood's wife confronted him about the affair. Cooley also became aware of the affair during May 2006.

¶ 4. Cooley and Jennifer's divorce was final on October 12, 2006. Cooley filed his complaint for alienation of affection against Wood on November 8, 2006, seeking $250,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The trial began on September 8, 2009, and ended on September 10, 2009, with the jury returning a verdict in favor of Cooley and awarding him damages in the amount of attorneys' fees and court costs. Upon hearing that verdict, the circuit judge directed the jury to return to deliberations to determine an amount because the verdict “is more likely than not a legally recognizable verdict which the Court can accept.” The jury then returned a second verdict in favor of Cooley and awarded him $100,000 in damages.

¶ 5. Following the trial, Wood timely filed a JNOV motion or, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial or remittitur. The circuit judge entered an order denying Wood's motions. It is from this denial that Wood now appeals.

¶ 6. On appeal, Wood raises twelve issues, which we recite verbatim:

I. Whether the jury's first verdict was a legally cognizable verdict and should have been adopted by the trial court?

II. Whether the second verdict is clearly defective wherein it included damages to compensate the Plaintiff/Appellee for attorney[s'] fees and court costs?

III. Whether the jury acted on emotion, whim[,] and caprice in awarding a second $100,000 verdict after only awarding the Plaintiff/Appellee his attorney['] fees and court costs in the first verdict?

IV. Whether the Plaintiff/Appellee's sworn counter-claim for divorce on the grounds of habitual cruel and inhuman treatment and irreconcilable differences in his divorce should bar a later claim for alienation of affection?

V. Whether the Plaintiff/Appellee should have been able to benefit from his failure to disclose the identity of Michael Langley, paramour[,] discovered at trial and not joined in suit?

VI. Whether the Plaintiff/Appellee should have been sanctioned for his discovery violation?

VII. Whether Michael Langley was an indispensable party and the Defendant/Appellant should have been entitled to a new trial?

VIII. Whether the trial court erred in its ruling on the Plaintiff/Appellee's motion in limine?

IX. Whether the trial court should have granted a mistrial based on the statements and inferences made by Plaintiff/Appellee's counsel during closing argument?

XI. Whether the court erred in submitting [jury instruction] C–7 and C–9?

XII. Whether the trial court should have ordered a new trial due to cumulative error?

¶ 7. Finding no reversible error, we affirm the circuit court's judgment.

ANALYSIS

¶ 8. As several of Wood's issues are related, we find it appropriate to combine them.1

I. Jury Verdict

¶ 9. In his first issue, Wood argues that the jury's first verdict was a legally cognizable verdict that awarded Cooley no compensatory damages; thus, the circuit judge erred by sending the jury back to continue deliberations. As a result, Wood also argues that the second verdict is defective because the jury improperly considered attorneys' fees and court costs when returning the $100,000 verdict. Further, Wood's final argument regarding the verdict is that the $100,000 award was a product of the jury acting on emotion, whim, or caprice.

¶ 10. Uniform Rule of Circuit and County Court 3.10 reads, in pertinent part, as follows: “If a verdict is so defective that the court cannot determine from it the intent of the jury, the court shall, with proper instructions, direct the jurors to reconsider the verdict. No verdict shall be accepted until it clearly reflects the intent of the jury.” Further addressing verdicts not in proper form, Mississippi Code Annotated section 11–7–157 (Rev.2004) provides that even though a jury verdict is not in the proper form, it will not be reversed if “there has been a substantial compliance with the requirements of the law in rendering a verdict....” The test to determine if a verdict is in substantial compliance is “whether or not it is an intelligent answer to the issues submitted to the jury and expressed so that the intent of the jury can be understood by the court.” Oliver v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 10 So.3d 976, 978 (¶ 7) (Miss.Ct.App.2009) (quoting Miss. Valley Gas Co. v. Estate of Walker, 725 So.2d 139, 151 (¶ 45) (Miss.1998) (overruled on other grounds)).

¶ 11. In the current case, jury instruction number C–15 provided the form of the verdict for the jury to follow. It stated that if the jury found for the plaintiff, it should write the following on a separate piece of paper: We, the jury, find for the plaintiff and assess damages at $____.” The first verdict the jury returned stated: We, the jury, find for the plaintiff and assess damages in the amount of attorney[s'] fees and court cost.” Both Wood and Cooley, in their respective briefs, attempt to impute their interpretation of what the jury intended to award in the first verdict; however, the test is clear. To be in substantial compliance, the verdict must be “expressed so that the intent of the jury can be understood by the court. Id. (emphasis added). The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “the meaning of the verdict must be obtained from the language used; ... otherwise it is the duty of the court to require the jury to retire and return a verdict responsive to the issue in the case[.] Morris v. Robinson Bros. Motor Co., 144 Miss. 861, 866, 110 So. 683, 684 (1927). The meaning and intent of the first jury verdict were open to more than one interpretation; the intent was not able to be obtained solely through the language of the verdict; thus, the intent of the jury was not understood by the court based on the language of the first verdict submitted. Further, it is settled Mississippi law that “attorney's fees are not an issue to be decided by the jury[,] and, instead, are committed to the discretion of the trial court. Mitchell v. Broadway Transfer & Storage Co., 749 So.2d 289, 290 (¶ 9) (Miss.Ct.App.1999). It is clear from the verdict that the jury found in favor of Cooley; however, it failed to assess a specific monetary amount and chose to award attorneys' fees and court costs. Had the jury returned even a nominal amount of compensatory damages, the verdict would be in substantial compliance; instead, they failed to quantify any amount of damages. The Uniform Rule of Circuit and County Court 3.10 allows the trial judge to direct the jury to continue its deliberations if the verdict it returns is so defective that the court cannot determine the jury's intent. This is precisely what the circuit judge did in the current case. Upon reviewing the jury's verdict and determining the verdict was not in proper form, the circuit judge referenced jury instruction number C–18 that advised the jury to “refer to the instructions given by the Court and continue [its] deliberations.” After further deliberations, the jury returned a verdict stating: We, the jury, find for the plaintiff and assess damages at $100,000.” This verdict was properly adopted by the circuit court because it was in proper form and clearly expressed the jury's intent. This issue is without merit.

¶ 12. Wood next argues that the circuit court erred in failing to instruct the jury that it was not to consider attorneys' fees or court costs when it deliberated the second time. We find no error. [O]ur law presumes that jurors follow the trial judge's instructions.” Steele v. Inn of Vicksburg, Inc., 697 So.2d 373, 378 (Miss.1997). When reviewing jury instructions on appeal, the jury instructions “are to be read together as a whole, with no one instruction to be read alone or taken out of context.” Burr v. Miss. Baptist Med. Ctr., 909 So.2d 721, 726 (¶ 12) (Miss.2005) (quoting Nunnally v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 869...

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3 cases
  • Fortenberry v. State
    • United States
    • Mississippi Court of Appeals
    • August 11, 2015
    ... ... Wood v. Cooley, 78 So.3d 920, 926 ( 12) (Miss.Ct.App.2011) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted) (quoting Burr v. Miss. Baptist Med. Ctr., ... ...
  • Douglas v. Denbury Onshore, LLC
    • United States
    • Mississippi Court of Appeals
    • February 2, 2012
  • Lyon v. McGee
    • United States
    • Mississippi Court of Appeals
    • January 23, 2018
    ... ... Court has stated "a party cannot assume a position at one stage of a proceeding and then take a contrary stand later in the same litigation." Wood v. Cooley , 78 So.3d 920, 926 ( 14) (Miss. App. 2011) (quoting Dockins v. Allred , 849 So.2d 151, 155 ( 7) (Miss. 2003) ). Similarly, collateral ... ...
1 books & journal articles
  • § 8.01 Personal Injury Claims
    • United States
    • Full Court Press Divorce, Separation and the Distribution of Property Title CHAPTER 8 Miscellaneous Property Interests
    • Invalid date
    ...in punitive damages and $500,000 in compensatory damages).[170] Fitch v. Valentine, 959 So.2d 1012 (Miss. 2007). See also, Wood v. Cooley, 78 So.3d 920 (Miss. App. 2011) ($100,000 in damages affirmed).[171] See: Eighth Circuit: Jones v. Swanson, 341 F.3d 723 (8th Cir. 2003) (the Eighth Circ......

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