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Good v. Skifstad

United States District Court, D. Montana, Butte Division

June 12, 2019

BRENT GOOD, Plaintiff,


          Brian Morris United States District Court Judge.

         Plaintiff Brent Good initially filed his complaint in Montana State District Court, Lewis and Clark County, against Defendants Donovan Skifstad, State of Montana Department of Transportation (“MDT”), Travelers Property Casualty Company of America (“Travelers”), and Progressive Universal Insurance Company (“Progressive”) on June 6, 2018. (Doc. 1-2.) Good filed a Montana Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice as to MDT on December 13, 2018. (Doc. 1-2 at 47-48.) Skifstad removed the instant case to this Court based on diversity jurisdiction on December 26, 2018. (Doc. 1.) Good dismissed with prejudice his claims against Travelers pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(i)(A)(ii) on April 15, 2019. (Doc. 42.)

         The Court conducted a hearing on Good's First Motion in Limine (Doc. 14) and on Progressive's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 34) on April 17, 2019. (Doc. 43.) The Court requested supplemental briefing after the hearing on whether the term release as defined in Sperry v. Montana State University, 778 P.2d 895 (Mont. 1989), applies to the term release as used in Montana Code Annotated § 25-1-703. (Doc. 44.) The parties timely filed their supplemental briefs on April 25, 2019. (Docs. 45, 46.) The Court will address in turn Good's Motion in Limine, with the requested supplemental briefs, and Progressive's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Motion in Limine

         All of the parties who have appeared in the instant matter agreed to Good's dismissal with prejudice of his claims against MDT in compliance with Montana Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(A)(ii). (Doc. 1-2 at 47-48.) Good requests that this Court prevent Defendants Skifstad and Progressive (collectively “Defendants”) from introducing any evidence and/or argument with regard to any liability for the accident that may be attributed to MDT's planning, design, and/or construction of the intersection of Harrison Avenue and Sampson Avenue in Butte, Montana. (Doc. 15 at 7.)

         Good cites to Montana Code Annotated § 27-1-703, and the Eleventh Amendment, in support of his motion. Private citizens remain precluded from suing a state in federal court absent the state's consent. U.S. Const. amend. XI. Skifstad does not seek to sue MDT. Skifstad seeks to use “evidence related to MDT's planning, design, and/or construction of the intersection” to support his defense that MDT's alleged negligence constitutes an intervening superseding cause. (Doc. 29 at 2.) The Eleventh Amendment has no bearing on Skifstad's effort to introduce such evidence.

         Section 27-1-703 governs the determination of liability in cases involving multiple defendants. “In an action based on negligence, a defendant may assert as a defense that the damages were caused in full or in part by a person with whom the claimant has settled or whom the claimant has released from liability.” Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-703(6)(a). Section 27-1-703(6)(c) generally prohibits comparison of fault with: “(i) a person who is immune from liability to the claimant; (ii) a person who is not subject to the jurisdiction of the court; or (iii) any other person who could have been, but was not, named as a third party.” These general requirements fail to apply, however, to “persons who have settled with or have been released by the claimant.” Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-703(6)(c).

         Whether a dismissal with prejudice pursuant to Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) constitutes a release for purposes of Montana Code Annotated § 27-1-703 stands at the crux of the instant motion to limine. Good contends that there exists “[e]stablished authority from numerous other jurisdictions” that support that a stipulation of dismissal pursuant to Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) does not constitute a “release” under § 27-1-703. (Doc. 30 at 5.) Good's numerous established authorities include a 1937 case from the Alabama Supreme Court and a 2004 case from the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Id. The Court declines to rely on these decisions from faraway jurisdictions absent extreme circumstances. Extreme circumstances fail to exist in this case in light of the Montana Supreme Court's articulation of release in Sperry.

         The issue before the Montana Supreme Court in Sperry was whether Sperry's retirement agreement with Montana State University (“MSU”) constituted a complete waiver and release of the claims that he had raised before the district court. Sperry, 778 P.2d at 897. Sperry, a retired MSU employee, alleged that MSU owed him additional compensation as a result of a contract conversion for employees that had taken place at MSU in 1967. Id. at 896.

         MSU employed Sperry as Director of Continuing Education from 1965 through March 31, 1986. Id. The “Montana 12 Contract” governed Sperry's employment with MSU from 1965 to 1967. Id. The Montana 12 Contract permitted MSU employees “to take an eighth quarter leave with pay for research, travel or any other reason approved by the Board of Regents.” Id. MSU employees were “required to work seven quarters before eligibility for the eighth quarter leave accrued.” Id.

         MSU converted all Montana 12 Contracts to one-year employment contracts in 1967. Id. Sperry signed an agreement in which he acknowledged and accepted that with the contract conversion all of Sperry's accumulated eighth quarter leave had been taken, and that Sperry had waived claim to any future eighth quarter leave. Id. Sperry signed nineteen individual annual employment contracts with MSU from 1967 through 1986, none of which mentioned conversion compensation. Id. Sperry, in his retirement agreement with MSU, agreed not to pursue any past wage grievances. Id. at 897.

         The Montana Supreme Court explained that release refers to the “abandonment of a claim to the party against whom it exists and may be gratuitous or for consideration.” Id. (emphasis added). A release proves effective when it includes words that “show an intention to discharge.” Id. (citation omitted). A release proves enforceable if it is “unambiguous, explicit, and unequivocal.” Id. (citation omitted). Sperry signed nineteen individual one-year employment contracts, cashed paychecks from 1967 through 1986, and accepted the retirement agreement with MSU without raising any objection regarding conversion compensation that Sperry allegedly was due. Id. at 898-99. Sperry's acquiescence without objection constituted a complete waiver and release of his claim for conversion compensation. Id. at 898.

         Good argues in line with Sperry that a release constitutes a contract. As a result, Good contends that the Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) stipulation of dismissal does not constitute a valid release, as contemplated by Montana Code Annotated § 27-1-703, because the stipulation was not supported by valuable consideration. (Doc. 45 at 2.) Sperry admittedly failed to clarify that a release constitutes a contract insofar as a party may seek to rescind the release through defenses available under contract law. Westfall, 374 P.2d at 98. A release becomes a contract's fraternal twin, however, when it comes to a release's formation as consideration-a necessity to forming a valid contract-need not support a valid release. See Westfall v. Motors Ins. Corp., 374 P.2d 96, 98 (Mont. 1962); Sperry, 778 P.2d at 898. No party seeks to rescind Good's Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) stipulation of dismissal with prejudice of MDT. Good's argument that his Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) stipulation fails to constitute a release of MDT because there was no valid consideration fails.

         Sperry admittedly did not address whether a stipulation of dismissal without prejudice constitutes a release for purposes of § 27-1-703. The reasoning in Sperry nonetheless applies. Good's Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) Voluntary Dismissal with Prejudice as to MDT constituted a release pursuant to Section 27-1-703. Montana Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) permits a plaintiff, without a court order, to dismiss an action by filing a stipulation of dismissal signed by all parties who have appeared in the action. Good chose to raise a cause of action for negligent planning and design against MDT. (Doc. 1-2 at ¶¶ 8-15.) Good then elected to dismiss with prejudice his claim against MDT as Good determined that there exists “no way to prove that MDT's ...

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