Trial Court’s Oral Rendition of Judgment Insufficient to Dispose of Pending Post-Judgment Motion

In Ex parte Jackson Hospital & Clinic, Inc., released by the Supreme Court of Alabama on April 16, 2010, the court issued a writ of mandamus voiding a trial court order that vacated a summary judgment in favor of petitioners.  Because the summary judgment order had been pending for more than ninety days, the trial court lacked jurisdiction at the time it purported to vacate it and the oral rendition that ocurred within the 90 day period was not sufficient.  

In this case, Houston sued Jackson Hospital for medical malpractice.  Jackson Hospital filed a motion for summary judgment in which it asserted that Houston had failed to introduce substantial evidence in support of her claims by means of expert testimony.  These motions were set for a hearing which neither Houston nor her attorney attended.  However, one hour after the hearing, Houston filed a response to Jackson Hospital’s motion that attached a purported expert affidavit.  The trial court granted Jackson Hospital’s motion for summary judgment on April 30, 2009.  

On June 2, 2009, Houston filed a motion to vacate or to set aside the order entering the summary judgment.  On review of this motion, Jackson Hospital first became aware of Houston’s response in opposition to its summary judgment motion because the response had not been served on counsel for Jackson Hospital.  Jackson Hospital moved to strike the response on the grounds that the expert whose affidavit it attached was not qualified and that the response was untimely. 

The trial court set a hearing on the motion to vacate the summary judgment order on July 20, 2009. At the hearing, the the trial court made it "perfectly clear" at the hearing that the issues to be tried were issues to be tried to the jury.  On October 5, 2009, the trial court entered an order purporting to set aside the summary judgment. 

The issue before the court was whether the trial court’s alleged oral determination that summary judgment was not proper sufficed to dispose of the pending post-judgment motion under Rule 59.1.  If so, then the disposition came within 90 days and was within the trial court’s jurisdiction.  If not, the disposition was not timely as required by Rule 59.1.   

The court held that the oral disposition was not sufficient.  Relying on Ex parte Chamblee, 899 So.2d 244 (Ala. 2004), the court stated that "Rule 59.1 must be read in conjunction and in harmony with Rule 58, which simply does not recognize an oral rendition of a judgment or order or an oral entry of a judgment or order."  As a result, the court concluded that even if the trial court had stated that there were issues for the jury at the July 20, 2009 hearing, that statement would be insufficient to constitute disposition of Houston’s pending post-judgment motion.  As a result, Houston’s motion had already been denied by operation of law when the trial court entered its written order purporting to set aside the summary judgment.  The trial court’s order was void because it lost jurisdiction after the running on the 90-day period prescribed by Rule 59.1.