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Athridge v. Iglesias

August 12, 2005

THOMAS P. ATHRIDGE ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JORGE IGLESIAS ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
THOMAS P. ATHRIDGE ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
HILDA RIVAS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Facciola United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Currently pending before me and ready for resolution is the issue of whether, given a January 12, 2005 jury verdict against defendants, plaintiffs are entitled to post-judgment or prejudgment interest dating back to November 8, 1996, when this court entered judgment and an award of damages in favor of plaintiffs and against the driver of defendants' car. For the reasons stated herein, this court will enter final judgment and award plaintiffs $5,510,010.78 in damages but will not award any interest dating back to the 1996 judgment against Jorge.

I. BACKGROUND

This case has a long, complicated history. In July 1987, Jorge Iglesias ("Jorge") drove a car belonging to his aunt and uncle ("the Rivases") while they were in South America, and he collided with a young man named Thomas Athridge ("Tommy"). Tommy and his parents ("plaintiffs" or "the Athridges") filed several lawsuits, naming as defendants Jorge, the Rivases, the restaurant owned by the Rivases, and two insurance companies.

In July 1995, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants except Jorge. The remaining claim, Tommy's negligence action against Jorge, was then transferred to Judge Harold Greene. After a bench trial, Judge Greene issued an opinion finding that Jorge was negligent, that his negligence proximately caused the injuries Tommy suffered, and that Jorge had the last clear chance to avoid the accident but failed to take it. Judge Greene awarded $5,510,010.78 to the Athridges, and the judgment was summarily affirmed on appeal. Athridge v. Iglesias, 950 F. Supp. 1187 (D.D.C. 1996), aff'd without opinion, 1997 WL 404854 (D.C. Cir. June 30, 1997). After entry of the judgment against him, Jorge declared bankruptcy. Aetna Insurance Company ("Aetna"), Jorge's insurer, denied coverage, pending further proceedings in plaintiffs' lawsuit against Aetna. Accordingly, plaintiffs' judgment against Jorge has remained completely unsatisfied.

In the meantime, Tommy appealed from Judge Jackson's July 19, 1995 grant of summary judgment against all defendants except Jorge. The Court of Appeals affirmed the award of summary judgment as to all defendants, except the Rivases and their restaurant. Upon remand, the parties conducted additional discovery and filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

In 2002, in the case between the Athridges and the Rivases, I concluded that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to Jorge's having the Rivases' consent to drive their car, but the Court of Appeals reversed that determination and remanded the case for a jury trial. Athridge v. Rivas, 312 F.3d 474 (D.C. Cir. 2002). A trial was held in January 2005, and the following two issues were presented to the jury: (1) whether the defendants established by a preponderance of the evidence that they did not consent to Jorge's use of their car on the day of the accident, and (2) whether the plaintiffs established by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendants were negligent in permitting Jorge access to the keys to their car and, if so, whether their negligence proximately caused the accident.

On January 12, 2005, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiffs and against the Rivases on both counts. Although the parties have stipulated that the Rivases are bound by Judge Greene's findings as to Jorge's negligence and the amount of damages sustained by plaintiffs, they dispute whether plaintiffs are entitled to interest dating back to the 1996 judgment.

II. THE PARTIES' ARGUMENTS

Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to an award of pre-judgment interest on three grounds. First, based on the 2005 jury verdict against the Rivases, plaintiffs argue that the Rivases are statutorily and jointly and severally liable for the judgment against Jorge. Thus, according to plaintiffs, the Rivases are liable for post-judgment interest, dating back to the 1996 judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1961. Plaintiffs' Memorandum in Support of an Award of Interest ("Pls.' Mem.") at 3-4. Alternatively, plaintiffs argue that, under D.C. Code § 15-108, they are entitled to pre-judgment interest on the amount awarded by Judge Greene because that amount is a liquidated debt and interest is payable by law or usage. Id. at 5-7. Finally, plaintiffs argue that the court should exercise its discretion and award plaintiffs pre-judgment interest in order to compensate plaintiffs for their inability to use the funds since the time of the 1996 judgment. Id. at 7-9.

Defendants oppose any award of pre-judgment interest for several reasons.*fn1 Most importantly, to date, no final judgment has ever been entered against the Rivases. They also argue that the 1996 judgment was entered against Jorge alone, and any debt he had was expunged by his filing of bankruptcy. Defendants' Law Memorandum re Plaintiffs' Claim of Pre-Judgment Interest ("Defs.' Mem.") at 2. Finally, the Rivases contend that Judge Greene's findings as to damages do not constitute a liquidated debt. Id. at 2.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Post-Judgment Interest Under 28 U.S.C. § 1961

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1961, "[i]nterest shall be allowed on any money judgment in a civil case recovered in a district court." 28 U.S.C. § 1961(a). As indicated above, on November 8, 1996, this court entered judgment in the amount of $5,510,010.78 against Jorge, the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident. At the time judgment was entered, plaintiffs' case against the owners of the vehicle, i.e., the Rivases, had been dismissed by Judge Jackson and was on appeal.

The District of Columbia's Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act ("MVSRA"), D.C. Code § 50-1301.08, provides:

Whenever any motor vehicle, after the passage of this chapter, shall be operated upon the public highways of the District of Columbia by any person other than the owner, with the consent of the owner, express or implied, the operator thereof shall in case of accident, be deemed to be the agent of the owner of such motor vehicle, and the proof of the ownership of said motor vehicle shall be prima facie evidence that such person operated said motor vehicle with the consent of the owner.

D.C. Code § 50-1301.08.

Relying on the presumptions created by the MVSRA, plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to post-judgment interest, beginning on the date of the 1996 judgment. Plaintiffs contend:

[W]hen Judge Greene entered judgment against Iglesias, [d]efendants became statutorily liable for that judgment subject to their affirmative defense of lack of consent. As a prima facie matter then, liability and damages as to [d]efendants were fully established at the time of the judgment against Iglesias. Indeed, it has never been disputed that [p]laintiffs had established a complete ...


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