Yarema v. Exxon Corp.

Citation305 Md. 219,503 A.2d 239
Decision Date01 September 1985
Docket NumberNo. 49,49
PartiesJohn E. YAREMA, Jr., Sherrill Yarema and Yarema's Lake, Inc. v. EXXON CORPORATION. ,
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Brian C. Parker (Gebhardt & Smith, on brief), Baltimore, for appellant.

Lewis A. Noonberg (John E. Griffith, Jr. and Piper & Marbury, Baltimore and Richard P. Delaney and Mark Howard, of Counsel, Houston Tex.), on brief, for appellee.



The Court of Special Appeals dismissed the appeal in this case for want of appellate jurisdiction, holding that the order of appeal was premature. We then granted a petition for a writ of certiorari to review this jurisdictional issue, which involves the relation between Maryland Rule 2-503(a), concerning consolidation of separate actions and judgments in consolidated actions, and Maryland Rule 2-602, concerning judgments in actions involving multiple claims or multiple parties. The case also presents a second issue relating to appellate jurisdiction, involving the operation of Maryland Rule 2-535(a).

I. Proceedings In The Circuit Court

This case began on October 9, 1981, when petitioners John E. Yarema, Jr., Sherrill Yarema and Yarema's Lake, Inc. ("the Yaremas"), along with four other parties, filed a declaration in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County against the respondent Exxon Corporation ("Exxon"), an Exxon dealer, and nine other defendants. The plaintiffs, relying on theories of strict liability, negligence, nuisance and trespass, sought damages for the alleged contamination of their land and groundwater by the defendants. The action was denoted Case No. 108233 by the circuit court.

More than six months later, on April 27, 1982, S & S Land Company and S & S Development Company filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County a suit against Exxon and thirteen other defendants, which action was given Case No. 82-L-921. On July 30, 1982, Ascot Estates, Inc., and Alvin L. Blank filed in the same court Case No. 82-L-1717 against Exxon and fourteen other defendants. The declarations in both of these actions were similar to the declaration in the Yaremas' suit, seeking damages for the alleged contamination of land and groundwater, and relying on theories of strict liability, negligence, nuisance and trespass.

Thereafter the Gulf Oil Company, a defendant in all three cases, filed a motion to consolidate the actions on the ground that they involved common issues of law and fact. The plaintiffs in No. 108233, arguing that "[e]ach separate case involves a host of legal and factual issues which are not raised by the other cases" and that "the parties in each of the cases are in different phases of discovery and trial preparation," opposed the motion to consolidate. Other parties in the several cases also opposed consolidation. After a hearing, however, the circuit court on January 28, 1983, entered an order pursuant to former Rule 503 (now Rule 2-503(a)(1)) consolidating the three actions. The order recited that

"on the Motions for Consolidation filed; on the Motion made for consolidation in open court and to what extent not covered, the court on its own Motion consolidates all cases for the purpose of trial."

Several months later, on June 3, 1983, a fourth action (Case No. 83-L-1423) was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County by Manor Associates against Exxon and fourteen other defendants, also seeking damages for the alleged contamination of land and groundwater and relying on essentially the same legal theories set forth in the previously filed cases. The court granted Manor Associates' motion to consolidate Case No. 83-L-1423 with the other three cases. 1

Subsequently, the circuit court entered orders in all four cases (1) that "all discovery which has previously been made in any of the ... cases shall apply and pertain to all of the aforesaid cases as if the discovery had been conducted in each case," (2) that all future discovery in any of the cases shall apply to all four of the cases, (3) that all parties in all of the cases "shall make full disclosure ... among themselves of the results of all tests of boring logs, soil tests, water elevations, water samples, tank tests, and chromatagrams ... taken at any time by or on behalf of any of the parties to these consolidated cases," and (4) that "each and every party in the ... cases is directed to disclose to every other party in the said cases ... the name(s) of any expert witness that is expected to testify at the trial of these cases." On the other hand, the Court maintained separate docket sheets and separate files for each of the cases.

A seven-week trial of the four consolidated cases began on October 3, 1983. At the end of the plaintiffs' case, the motion of one of the defendants for a directed verdict was granted. Also, both before and during the trial there were numerous settlement agreements among the parties, although no one of the consolidated cases was entirely disposed of by settlements. Nevertheless, ultimately all remaining defendants in all four cases, except Exxon and its dealer, apparently reached settlement agreements with all of the plaintiffs including the Yaremas. Additionally, in Case No. 108233, the plaintiffs other than the Yaremas settled with Exxon and its dealer. 2

Before the jurors began deliberating, the Court instructed them that "each case is to be considered separately and independently." On November 21, 1983, the jury returned a separate verdict in each of the four cases. In No. 108233, it awarded a verdict in favor of plaintiffs John E. Yarema, Jr., and Sherill Yarema against Exxon for $60,000.00 compensatory damages and $20,000.00 punitive damages, and in favor of the plaintiff Yarema's Lake Inc., against Exxon for $5,000.00 compensatory damages and $20,000.00 punitive damages. In response to issues submitted, the jury based its verdict against Exxon on negligence, nuisance and strict liability. The jury, however, found no basis for liability on the part of Exxon's dealer. In the other three cases, the jury rendered similar verdicts, awarding the plaintiffs various amounts of money damages against Exxon based on negligence, nuisance and strict liability, and exonerating Exxon's dealer. On the same day, all of the jury verdicts were entered on the dockets as judgments nisi. 3

On November 23, 1983, in Case No. 108233, the Yaremas filed a motion for a new trial. Two days later Exxon filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, new trial or remittitur, which was applicable to all four cases. A hearing on the motions was held on December 16, 1983, although the proceedings were not recorded. The docket entries in Case No. 108233 state that both the Yaremas' motion and Exxon's motion were denied on that date by the circuit judge. The docket entries go on to show as follows: "December 16, 1983. Judgment Absolute." Similar entries were made on the docket sheets in the other three cases. 4 Next in Case No. 108233, counsel for Exxon submitted a proposed order, which the circuit court on January 13, 1984, signed and filed, reducing the amount of the awards in favor of the Yaremas and directing that judgment be entered for the reduced amounts. Each side approved the order as to form only. On the same day, judgment was entered on the docket in favor of the Yaremas for the reduced amounts. 5 Somewhat similar orders and judgments were signed and entered in Case No. 82-L-921 on December 29, 1983, in Case No. 82-L-1717 on January 5, 1984, and in Case No. 83-L-1423 on January 5, 1984, although the order and judgment in No. 83-L-1423 was for the same amounts as the jury's verdict.

Exxon filed separate orders of appeal in each case on January 24, 1984. Three days later, Exxon filed separate motions in each case to correct the docket entries of December 16, 1983, arguing that the docket entries were inconsistent with the circuit judge's actions at the December 16th hearing. Thereafter the plaintiffs in the four cases filed oppositions to the motions to correct the docket entries. They also filed motions to strike the orders of appeal on the ground that the orders were filed more than thirty days from the December 16th judgment. See Rules 1012 a and 1013.

A hearing on the motions to correct the docket entries and to strike the appeals was held on February 24, 1984. At the conclusion of the hearing the circuit judge issued an oral opinion, holding that at the prior hearing on December 16, 1983, he did deny the plaintiffs' motions for new trial and Exxon's motions, that he did believe that the entry of judgment absolute as of December 16th was appropriate, and that the December 16th docket entries were correct. The circuit judge further held that at the December 16th hearing, "subsequent to the denial of the motion[s] ... there was a discussion as to what the proportionate shares of each original defendant or of this defendant who was still in the case, Exxon, ... would be." The judge went on:

"It was clear to the Court on that day, and I so indicated, that the Court did not have the figures of the settlements made by other defendants and therefore, the Court was not in a position to indicate in precise dollars and cents what the proportionate share of Exxon's payment would be, and I suggested to you that I didn't want to do the arithmetic. That was my exact language. And that this was something that I would leave to counsel.

"It was not the Court's suggestion that orders be submitted. That was, in fact, volunteered by counsel, and I said fine because I felt and I thought it was very appropriate, that the dollars and cents figures be perpetuated, if you please, by way of an order so that there would be no future question after an appeal had been taken or after a time period as to what exactly what the amount that had to be paid. And the Court indicated that that was...

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