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New Grants of Petitions for Certiorari in Civil Cases

October 18, 2011

The Supreme Court of Georgia has granted new petitions for certiorari in five civil cases (two of which are combined with other cases) in the last week. A summary of each new case to be considered by the Court is below.

S11G1145. Appleton v. Alcorn et al.

This case is a dispute between a decedent’s daughters and his second wife regarding proper ownership of the decedent’s 401(k) retirement plan and life insurance plan. Several months before his death, Alcorn entered into an Order of Separate Maintenance that incorporated a settlement agreement. The settlement agreement contained language waiving Appleton’s rights to Alcorn’s retirement accounts and life insurance proceeds. Upon Alcorn’s death, Alcorn’s 401(k) plan and life insurance plan paid the proceeds (according to ERISA) to Appleton. Alcorn’s daughters filed suit, alleging breach of contract. The trial court granted Appleton’s motion to dismiss, finding that ERISA controlled the distribution of funds, under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Plan Administrator, 129 S.Ct. 865 (2009).

The Court of Appeals (Smith, Mikell, Adams) unanimously reversed the trial court ruling, finding that Kennedy did not bar a subsequent breach of contract claim and existing Georgia precedent allowed a subsequent claim against funds distributed from an ERISA plan.

Appleton petitioned for certiorari, arguing the issue was one of first impression in Georgia, and the Alcorns responded, arguing the Supreme Court had addressed this issue previously.

On October 17, 2011, the Supreme Court unanimously granted the petition for certiorari to review the following issue:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err in finding that a decedent’s children could maintain a state law action against the decedent’s surviving spouse to recover proceeds distributed to the spouse as the beneficiary of the decedent’s ERISA-governed benefits plans where the state law claims are based on a contention that the spouse waived her rights to such proceeds?

The case has been assigned to the February 2012 oral argument calendar.

S11G1263. The Landings Association, Inc. v. Williams et al.S11G1277. The Landings Club, Inc. v. Williams et al.

This case began with an alleged alligator attack that resulted in the death of Gwyneth Williams. Williams’ estate and heirs sued the joint owners of the lagoon where the alligator allegedly killed Williams, the Landings Association and the Landings Club. The owners filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on premises liability, nuisance, and the doctrine that a landowner is not responsible for harm caused by a free wild animal on the owner’s land (the doctrine of animals ferae naturae). After the trial court denied the motion for summary judgment in part, the owners appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part in a 5-2 decision (Ellington, Barnes, Miller, Phipps, McFadden in the majority; Andrews and Doyle concurring in part and dissenting in part). The majority found the trial court correctly determined that the owners had shown as a matter of law that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the premises liability claims and that the doctrine of animals ferae naturae did not create an exception to premises liability for injuries from wild animals. But the majority reversed the trial court and found the owners were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the nuisance claim. The dissent would have found that the owners were entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the premises liability claims, when combined with the animals ferae naturae doctrine.

The Association and the Club petitioned for certiorari and Williams estate responded separately to the Association and the Club.

On October 17, 2011, the Supreme Court granted the petitions for certiorari in a 4-3 vote (Hunstein, Carley, and Benham dissenting) to consider the following issue:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals err in its holding that the trial court properly denied in part the motions for summary judgment brought by The Landings Association, Inc. and The Landings Club, Inc.?

The cases have been assigned to the February 2012 oral argument calendar.

S11G1681. Hoover v. Maxum Indemnity CompanyS11G1683. Hoover v. Maxum Indemnity Company

This case began when Hoover, an employee of Emergency Water Extraction Services, LLC (EWES), was injured on a job site. In 2004, a ladder Hoover was descending on a job site collapsed, resulting in a catastrophic brain stem injury. The owner of EWES was made aware of the accident on the day it occurred, and Hoover’s father requested information about EWES’s insurance coverage. In 2006, Hoover filed a tort action against EWES alleging neglience (EWES was not subject to the Worker’s Compensation Act) and EWES forwarded the complaint to Maxum. Maxum denied coverage, stating that the complaint was the first notice it received of the occurrence, along with other policy defenses. Maxum did not provide a defense and a jury verdict of $16.5 million was returned in Hoover’s favor against EWES.

EWES then assigned its right of action against Maxum to Hoover and Hoover sued Maxum, claiming breach of the duties of defense and indemnification. Maxum moved for summary judgment on whether it had received timely notice and Hoover moved for summary judgment on Maxum’s duty to defend. The trial court granted both motions, finding that while Maxum breached its duty to defend EWES, it did not breach any duty to indemnify because sufficient notice was not given. Both parties appealed.

The Court of Appeals (Miller, Ellington, Doyle) unanimously affirmed in part and reversed in part, finding the trial court correctly found there was no duty to indemnify because of an unjustifiable and unreasonable delay in providing notice, but also determining that Maxum did not have a duty to defend EWES. Because of the lack of notice, Maxum was not obligated to provide “either a defense or coverage.”

Hoover petitioned for certiorari on both issues, and Maxum filed a joint response.

On October 17, 2011, the Supreme Court granted the petitions for certiorari in a 6-1 vote (Nahmias dissenting) to consider the following issues:

  1. Did the Court of Appeals properly analyze the claim that the respondent waived its notice defense?
  2. Was timely notice a prerequisite in this case to respondent having a duty to provide a defense in the underlying tort action?

The cases have been assigned to the February 2012 oral argument calendar.

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