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Athridge v. Churreria Madrid Restaurant

March 23, 2006

THOMAS P. ATHRIDGE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS FATHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF THOMAS P. ATHRIDGE, MINOR, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHURRERIA MADRID RESTAURANT, CHURRERIA MADRID RESTAURANT, INC., DEFENDANTS.
FRANCISCO RIVAS, THOMAS P. ATHRIDGE, SR., THOMAS P. ATHRIDGE, JR., MARY T. ATHRIDGE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
HILDA RIVAS, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

These consolidated cases were referred to me, upon consent of the parties, for all purposes including trial. Currently pending for resolution is Defendants' Motion for New Trial and/or Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict. For the reasons stated herein, defendants' motion will be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

This case has a long, complicated history. In July 1987, Jorge Iglesias ("Iglesias") 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. Thomas Athridge and his parents ("plaintiffs" or "the Athridges") filed several lawsuits, naming as defendants Iglesias, 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 Iglesias. The remaining claim, Thomas Athridge's negligence action against Iglesias, was then transferred to Judge Harold Greene. After a bench trial in 1996, Judge Greene issued an opinion finding that Iglesias was negligent, that his negligence proximately caused the injuries Thomas Athridge suffered, and that Iglesias 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, Iglesias declared bankruptcy. Aetna Insurance Company ("Aetna"), Iglesias' insurer, denied coverage, pending further proceedings in plaintiffs' lawsuit against Aetna. Accordingly, plaintiffs' judgment against Iglesias has remained completely unsatisfied.

In the meantime, Thomas Athridge appealed Judge Jackson's July 19, 1995 grant of summary judgment against all defendants except Iglesias. 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 December 1999, the cases brought by the Athridges against the Rivases were referred to me for all purposes including trial. In October 2001, I concluded that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to Iglesias having the Rivases' consent to drive their car and granted summary judgment in the Rivases' favor. The court of appeals, however, 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 Iglesias' use of their car; and (2) whether the plaintiffs established by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendants were negligent in permitting Iglesias 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.

The parties had previously stipulated that, if the Rivases were found by the jury to have consented to Iglesias' use of their car, then they would be bound by the $5.5 million judgment against Iglesias. A dispute arose, however, over whether plaintiffs were entitled to interest dating back to Judge Greene's 1996 judgment. After briefing from the parties, on August 12, 2005, I issued an order denying plaintiffs' request for interest dating back to 1996. Final Judgment was entered on August 15, 2005.

On August 24, 2005, the Rivases filed the present motion for a new trial under Rule 59 and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under Rule 50*fn1 on five grounds: (1) I wrongfully denied defendants' motion for a directed verdict*fn2 ; (2) the jury's verdict was contrary to the evidence; (3) the jury instruction on "consent" was erroneous and incomplete; (4) the admission of Exhibit 11 was erroneous and unfairly prejudicial; and (5) the admission of Exhibit 14 was erroneous and unfairly prejudicial. Memorandum of Points & Authorities ("Defs. Br.") at 19. Although the Rivases do not specify on which grounds they seek judgment as a matter of law and on which grounds they seek a new trial, I will assume that defendants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law is based on my denial of their motion for judgment as a matter of law and that their motion for a new trial is based on the remaining four grounds.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Defendants' Motion Was Timely

As a threshold matter, plaintiffs argue that defendants' motion should be dismissed as untimely. Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendants' Motion for New Trial and/or Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict ("Pls. Br.") at 4-6. Under Rules 50 and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party has ten days from the entry of judgment to file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law or a motion for a new trial. Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b), 59(b). In this case, final judgment was entered on August 15, 2005 and, as a result, defendants had until August 25, 2005 to file their motion. Plaintiffs argue that the actual date from which the time for filing began to run was June 13, 2005, not August 15, 2005, and, therefore, defendants' motion, which was filed on August 24, 2005, was untimely. Pls. Br. at 4-6.

Plaintiffs base their untimeliness argument on Rule 58. Under Rule 58, judgment must be entered on a separate document. Fed. R. Civ. P. 58(a). In 2002, Rule 58 was amended to address situations where courts fail to comply with the separate document requirement -- that had resulted in confusion as to when the time for making post-judgment motions had to begin to run. Fed. R. Civ. P. 58(b)(2) advisory committee's notes. Under the amended rule, judgment is deemed to be entered either at the time judgment is in fact entered on a separate document or 150 days after entry of judgment on the docket. Fed. R. Civ. P. 58(b)(2). Plaintiffs argue that judgment was entered on January 13, 2005, when the jury's verdict was entered on the docket, and, because the Court did not enter judgment on a separate document until August 15, 2005, the time for filing Rule 50 and 59 motions began to run on June 13, 2005 -- 150 days after the jury's verdict was entered. Defs. Br. at 4-6.

Plaintiffs' argument ignores the fact that, at the time jury returned its verdict, the amount of the judgment had not yet been determined due to a dispute between the parties as to whether plaintiffs were entitled to pre-judgment interest on Judge Greene's $5,510,010.78 damage award. Moreover, I expressly told the parties that judgment would not be entered until after the pre-judgment interest issue had been resolved. Transcript of Jury Deliberations Before the Honorable John M. Facciola United States Magistrate Judge, at 7-8 (Jan. 12, 2005). Shortly after the jury read its verdict, defendants had raised the issue of post-trial motions and, in response, I explained: "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. First we have to get a judgment and then it is final." Id. at 7. And when defendants' counsel sought clarification, I stated: "The clerk will not enter judgment . . . until we know the amount in which the judgment is going to be entered and we don't know that until that ...


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