Court of Civil Appeals Dismisses Two Appeals As From Non-Final Judgments Where the Orders Appealed From Adjudicated Less Than All the Issues Before It, Yet Deems Another Judgment Final Where Two Motions Remained Pending in the Trial Court

Appeals in both Stocks v. Stocks, No. 2081033, and Laney v. Garmon, No. 2071233, were dismissed as from non-final judgments by the Court of Civil Appeals last week. By contrast, in A.M. v. J.S, a final judgment was found to support an appeal to the same court even though the circuit court had not ruled on two motions pending before it.

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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Important Recusal Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an interesting case on recusal today. In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., [08-22],  a 5-4 opinion, the Court recognized a due process violation when a judge refuses to recusue himself when a litigant "had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent."

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Successive Post-Judgment Motions Not Allowed; Court Will Not Review Order Entered In Another Case

After deciding the main issues in a divorce proceeding, the Court of Civil Appeals in Washington v. Washington, [Ms. 2070718] (Ala. Civ. App. May 29, 2009), addressed some interesting appellate issues regarding certain post-judgment orders of the trial court.

First, the court found that a second post-judgment motion filed by the wife was improper, as "successive post-judgment motions by the same party, seeking essentially the same relief, are not allowed."  The trial court’s entry of a judgment based on the second post-judgment motion was therefore void.

Second, the court refused to hear the husband’s appeal of  an order in a contempt action between the parties.  The contempt order was in a separate action and was issued months after the notice of appeal was filed.  Because no notice of appeal had been filed in the separate contempt action, the Court of Civil Appeals could not hear the appeal of that order in conjunction with this case.

Party Cannot File an “Amendment” to a Complaint If Trial Court Did Not Have Jurisdiction Over Original Complaint

In Off Campus College Bookstore, Inc. v. University of Alabama in Huntsville, [Ms. 1071426] (Ala. May 29, 2009), the Alabama Supreme Court applied the well-settled rule that an appeal cannot lie from a void judgment and dismissed the appeal where the trial court did not have jurisdiction over the case due to sovereign immunity.  The Court further held that the attempt to cure the jurisdiction defect failed.

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Alabama Will Not Follow Federal Common Law Punitive Damages Rule

Last June, the United States Supreme Court adopted common law standards for assessing punitive damages in Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 128 S. Ct. 2605 (2008), a federal maritime case.  After reviewing the purpose of punitive damages awards, examining a host of state court punitive damages schemes and noting the "stark unpredictability" of punitive damages awards, the Court turned to "several studies . . . showing the median ratio of punitive to compensatory verdicts, reflecting what juries and judges have considered reasonable across many hundreds of awards."  The Court found that, "[t]he data put the median ratio of the entire gamut of circumstances at less than 1:1, meaning that the compensatory award exceeds the punitive award in most cases.  . . . On these assumptions, a median ratio of punitive to compensatory damages of about .65:1 probably marks the line near which cases like this one largely should be grouped.  Accordingly, given the need to protect against the possibility (and the disruptive cost to the legal system) of awards that are unpredictable and unnecessary, we consider that a 1:1 ratio, which is above the median award, is a fair upper limit in such maritime cases."  The defendant in Line v. Ventura, No. 1070736 (Ala. May 22, 2009), argued that the .65:1 ratio that the United States Supreme Court identified in Baker established a constitutional limit on punitive damages, and he asked the Alabama Supreme Court to apply that ratio to reduce the $550,000 punitive damages award against him in light of the jury’s $200,000 compensatory damages award.  The Alabama Supreme Court noted that Baker did not address constitutional limit on punitive damages.  The Court explained, "[w]e reject Line’s argument in light of the Baker Court’s explicit limitation of its holding to federal maritime common law. The appropriate standard for considering the excessiveness of the punitive-damages award is set out in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408 (2003), and BMW of North America v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996)."  Applying the criteria from Gore and Campbell,  the Court affirmed the $550,000 punitive damages award:  "[t]his case presents an example of a conscious disregard of fiduciary duty that resulted in financial losses to a minor who was certainly financially vulnerable. Those losses, and this controversy, were not a mere accident. Under these circumstances we will not hold the trial court in error for refusing to grant the remittitur."