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Summer Stricker v. Blaine County

Supreme Court of Montana

January 15, 2019

SUMMER STRICKER, Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF ALLEN J. LONGSOLDIER JR., Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
BLAINE COUNTY, HILL COUNTY, and the STATE OF MONTANA Defendants and Appellees.

          ORDER

         Defendant Blaine County moves to dismiss the appeal filed by Plaintiff Summer Strieker, Personal Representative of the Estate of Allen J. Longsoldier, Jr., arguing it exceeds the scope of the District Court's Certification Order and Judgment. Plaintiff objects to Blaine County's motion, arguing her appeal is properly before this Court.

         On February 2, 2015, the Eighth Judicial District Court, Cascade County, issued an Order that entered three partial summary judgment rulings pertinent to the present dispute: (1) the State of Montana is not vicariously liable for any negligence for which Blaine County, Hill County, or Northern Montana Hospital (NMH) may be vicariously or directly liable regarding the post-arrest custody, care, and death of A. J. Longsoldier; (2) Blaine County is not vicariously liable for any negligence for which Hill County or NMH may be liable in this matter; and (3) Hill County is vicariously liable for any negligence attributable to NMH in this matter.

         Defendant Hill County moved the District Court for relief from the Order, asking the court either to set aside the "Order of February 2, 2015 holding Hill County vicariously liable for the negligence of Northern Montana Hospital," or alternatively "to certify this issue to the Montana Supreme Court." Hill County's supporting brief made arguments only about the ruling that held it was vicariously liable. Plaintiff opposed this motion, arguing the District Court should not certify the question.

         The District Court considered the arguments raised, noting that Hill County believed its ability to defend itself at trial was undermined by the summary judgment ruling. The court considered the factors for certification under M. R. Civ. P. 54(b)(1) as set forth in Weinstein v. Univ. of Mont, 271 Mont. 435, 898 P.2d 101 (1995), and ruled, "The Court finds that certification of the Court's February 2, 2015, Summary Judgment Order is proper and appropriate."

         Hill County then moved for entry of judgment. On October 22, 2018, the District Court issued the Judgment, which stated, in part, "the February 2, 2015 interlocutory Order holding Hill County had a non delegable duty ... and is therefore vicariously liable for the medical negligence of [NMH] is deemed final for purposes of appeal."

         However, prior to Hill County initiating an appeal from the certified judgment, Plaintiff filed a Notice of Appeal based upon the Rule 54(b) Certification. Pursuant to M. R. App. P. 4(4)(b), we reviewed the District Court's certification order for compliance with M. R. App. P. 6(6), and ordered the appeal may proceed. Hill County filed its Notice of Appeal from the certified judgment thereafter, but we took no action because the appeal had already been approved. Blaine County also filed a Notice of Appeal but, in its notice, maintained it did not believe the portion of the District Court's order that granted summary judgment in Blaine County's favor on the issue of vicarious liability was properly appealable at this point, and that it filed a Notice of Appeal "out of an overabundance of caution . . . simply to assert that Blaine County is not a proper party to this Appeal . . . ." Blaine County then filed the Motion to Dismiss at issue here.

         Blaine County and Plaintiff disagree on how to interpret the District Court's Certification Order and Judgment. B1aine County argues the District Court certified only its ruling on Hill County's vicarious liability, and that reading the order in context will confirm this conclusion. Plaintiff argues the District Court certified the entire order, noting the Order on its face certifies "the Court's February 2, 2015, Summary Judgment Order," and, as a practical matter, the only issue from that Order which the District Court could have legitimately certified was the summary judgment ruling in favor of the State, because the ruling finding Hill County vicariously liable was only a partial adjudication.

         Rule 54(b)(1) provides, in relevant part, "When an action presents more than one claim for relief... or when multiple parties are involved, the court may direct entry of a final judgment as to one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties only if the court expressly determines that there is no just reason for delay" Contrary to Plaintiffs position, nothing in this language precludes a court from certifying a partial adjudication. It is true that certification of a partial adjudication of a single claim is disfavored. Weinstein, 271 Mont. At 441, 898 P.2d at 105. However, here, the District Court properly considered this factor in determining certification was proper and appropriate, and Plaintiff did not raise this argument below. Furthermore, unlike Weinstein, Plaintiff does not ask this Court to overturn the Rule 54 certification; she simply pursues a broader interpretation of the certification.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments and the record before us, we conclude that Blaine County is correct in its interpretation of the certification order. Rule 54(b)(1) provides that a court may direct entry of a final judgment as to one or more, but fewer than all, claims or parties if it determines there is no just reason for delay. Here, the District Court entered Judgment that, "the February 2, 2015 interlocutory Order holding Hill County... is therefore vicariously liable for the medical negligence of [NMH] is deemed final for purposes of appeal." The Judgment clearly limits the certification to that ruling, and therefore only that ruling is properly before this Court on appeal at this time. Therefore, IT IS ORDERED that the appeal by SUMMER STRICKER, Personal Representative of the ESTATE OF ALLEN J. LONGSOLDIER JR., is DISMISSED, without prejudice.

         IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the appeal by BLATNE COUNTY is DISMISSED, without prejudice.

         IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the appeal by HILL COUNTY from the certification order, upon further review of the order for compliance pursuant to M. R. App. P. ...


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