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Missouri Law Blog Legal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Old Facts and (no) New Tricks – Res Judicata Applies Despite Plaintiff’s Change in Legal Theory

May 24, 2017 | John Patterson

In Kesler v. The Curators of the University of Missouri, et al., the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri has provided a refresher course on the defense of res judicata.

Plaintiff was a former assistant professor at the University of Missouri. While he was in the process of tenure review, he simultaneously faced university disciplinary proceedings for “plagiarism and other misconduct.”  Although he prevailed on the plagiarism charge, plaintiff was found to have engaged in “other unacceptable behavior.”  Plaintiff was ultimately denied tenure, and given a one year terminal contract.  In September 2014, he sued MU and various University officials (Kesler I), seeking writs of prohibition and mandamus compelling the University to provide various items of relief, including new tenure review proceedings.  Kesler I was premised on the University officials’ alleged improper conduct during the tenure and disciplinary proceedings.  After extensive litigation, the trial court ruled against plaintiff and in favor of the university.

Soon after losing Kesler I, plaintiff filed another lawsuit against MU and the same University officials (Kesler II).  In Kesler II, plaintiff sought recovery on various tort theories which were not asserted in Kesler I.  However, the factual basis for Kesler II was the same as before – once he again he complained of the University officials’ alleged improper conduct during the tenure and disciplinary proceedings.  Defendants were granted summary judgment on the basis of collateral estoppel and res judicata.  Plaintiff appealed, apparently arguing in part that res judicata did not apply because he sought to advance different legal theories in Kesler I and Kesler II.

The Western District affirmed, holding that for res judicata to apply, four “identities” must be present: identity of (1) the things sued for, (2) the cause of action, (3) the persons and parties to the action, and (4) the person for or against whom the claim is made.  For res judicata purposes, “[s]eparate legal theories are not to be considered as separate claims[.]”  Instead, analysis of the “identity of the things sued for” and “identity of the cause of action” must focus on the underlying facts, and “[f]or a subsequent claim on the same transaction to be considered separate, there must be new ultimate facts, as opposed to evidentiary details, that form a new claim for relief.” Citing Kesterson v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 242 S.W.3d 712, 715 (Mo. banc 2008).

Kesler reminds practitioners that, when performing a res judicata analysis, a new legal spin on an old set of facts is generally insufficient to overcome the defense.  If the facts are the same, then new labels will not resurrect a dead claim.

Missouri Court of Appeals Upholds Acceptance Doctrine to Absolve General Contractor of Premises Liability

April 21, 2017 | John Watt

In the case of Wilson v. Dura-Seal and Stripe, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District held that the “acceptance doctrine” is still valid law in Missouri, and bars liability against a construction contractor for the injury of a third party after the owner of the premises has accepted the work. Citing prior case law, the Court explained the law as follows: “After an owner accepts a structure, the general rule is that a general contractor is not liable to persons with whom he did not contract....In the absence of formal acceptance, constructive or practical acceptance will suffice....Acceptance of the work is attended by the presumption of the owner … made a reasonably careful inspection of the work, knows of its defects, and so accepts the defects and the negligence that caused them as his own.” 

In Wilson, plaintiff brought suit against general contractor Dura-Seal for injuries she sustained when she tripped and fell in the gutter area of new asphalt, which had been applied by Dura-Seal at a public school.  Wilson claimed that she fell as a result of the height differential between the gutter area and the new asphalt installed by Dura-Seal.  Wilson filed a premises liability claim against the owner of the premises who then in turn added Dura-Seal as a third party defendant.  Dura-Seal moved for summary judgment, stating that the owner had accepted their work and therefore bore the premises liability due to the acceptance doctrine.  The plaintiff argued that there was no evidence that the owner had accepted the work. 

It was undisputed that Dura-Seal had not performed any work on the drive lane for at least two months before the plaintiff’s injury and that the owner had paid Dura-Seal for all of the work.  It was undisputed that the owner also had exclusive possession and use of the premises rather than the contractor.  The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment and found that the undisputed facts showed that Dura-Seal was neither in control of the premises, nor had the right to control the premises at the time of the plaintiff’s injury.

The Court of Appeals also analyzed the “imminently dangerous” exception to the acceptance doctrine.  This exception operates to impose liability on a contractor, even after the owner has accepted the contractor’s work, under the following conditions: “Where the structure was so defectively constructed as to be essentially and imminently dangerous to the safety of others; the defects are so hidden and concealed that a reasonable and careful inspection would not have disclosed them, and these things are known to the defendants but not to those who accepted them.”  Here, the undisputed facts showed that the drive lane and the gutter area where Dura-Seal worked were in plain view and therefore was easily discoverable by the owner.  The Court thus declined to apply the exception, and ruled in Dura-Seal’s favor, holding that plaintiff had accepted the work when it was completed and payment in full was made.

Missouri construction contractors and their counsel should be well aware of the dimensions of the acceptance doctrine, and the “imminently dangerous” exception, when defending cases of this type.

 

The Daubert Standard – Coming Soon to a Missouri Court Near You

March 31, 2017 | John Patterson

Earlier this week, Governor Eric Greitens signed Missouri HB 153 into law. HB 153, which supplants Missouri’s existing expert witness standard with that set forth in Federal Rules of Evidence 702, 703, 704 and 705, effectively submits expert testimony in most civil and criminal case to the analysis set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

Until now, R.S.Mo. 490.065 has set forth the requirements for admission of expert testimony in Missouri state courts.  In its present form, the language of the statute has varied significantly from the familiar expert witness standard set forth in the Federal Rules of Evidence and the rules of numerous sister states that track the federal rules.  The standard for applying the requirements of R.S.Mo. 490.065 has been nebulously outlined in Missouri case law.  Missouri appellate decisions have noted on occasion that Daubert and its progeny could provide “guidance” where the federal rules and the Missouri rules match up.  See, e.g. State Bd. of Registration for the Healing Arts v. McDonagh, 123 S.W.3d 146, 155-156 (Mo. 2003) (Wolff, J, concurring in part and dissenting in part), and Goddard v. State, 144 S.W.3d 848, 852-853 (Mo. App. S.D. 2004)On other occasions, however, Missouri courts have plainly stated that Daubert did not govern the admissibility of expert testimony in Missouri cases.  See, e.g., McGuire v. Seltsam, 138 S.W.3d 718, at fn. 3 (Mo. 2004). As one Supreme Court Justice noted in a concurrence to McDonagh, supra:

“Forget Frye. Forget Daubert. Read the statute. Section 490.065 is written, conveniently, in English. It has 204 words. Those straightforward statutory words are all you really need to know about the admissibility of expert testimony in civil proceedings. Section 490.065 allows expert opinion testimony where "scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact…" McDonagh, supra at 160.

Things have not proven so straightforward, and with no definitive standard, trial judges understandably have had a difficult time sorting the wheat from the chaff, allowing some questionable “expert” testimony to slip through the cracks and into the jury box.  When HB 153 takes effect, in August 2017, and Daubert unquestionably sets the standard for admissible expert testimony, this risk will be considerably lessened. In federal courts, Daubert has for decades proven a fair and effective standard for assessing the admissibility of expert testimony.  Its introduction into Missouri law will be a welcome change.

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About Missouri Law Blog

The BSCR Missouri Law Blog examines significant developments, trends and changes in Missouri law on a broad range of topics of interest to Missouri practitioners and attorneys and businesses with disputes subject to Missouri law. Learn more about the editor, David Eisenberg.

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