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Edwards v. Safeway, Inc.

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

September 19, 2019

Fiona Edwards, Appellant,
v.
Safeway, Inc., et al., Appellees.

          Argued May 15, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAB-5957-15) (Hon. William M. Jackson, Trial Judge)

          Moses V. Brown for appellant.

          Abby U. Van Grinsven, with whom Keith M. Bonner and Justin M. Cuniff were on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, Easterly, Associate Judge, and Washington, Senior Judge.

          EASTERLY, ASSOCIATE JUDGE.

         A jury awarded Fiona Edwards compensatory damages in her claim for conversion. She challenges the trial court's rulings precluding her from amending her complaint to include a negligence claim and rejecting her requests to present evidence in support of her claim for punitive damages and to instruct the jury about that claim. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Ms. Edwards sued Safeway after allegedly being "confronted," "detained," physically assaulted, and falsely accused of shoplifting at the Hechinger Mall Safeway store on March 9, 2014.[1] Following Safeway's partly successful motion for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds, her multiple intentional tort claims were winnowed down to a single claim for conversion for the loss of various goods she had brought to the store or purchased while there and subsequently lost in the confrontation. Before trial, Safeway filed both (1) what it called a "[Proposed] Stipulation" (brackets in original) accepting liability for Ms. Edwards's conversion claim[2] and (2) a related motion in limine to exclude a surveillance videotape showing the incident because, the company argued, such evidence was "irrelevant as well as unfairly prejudicial and cumulative in light of [Safeway's] stipulation to liability." Ms. Edwards opposed this motion. Ms. Edwards also requested punitive damages, which Safeway opposed, as documented in the parties' joint pretrial statement.[3]

         At a pretrial hearing, the trial court indicated it was accepting Safeway's admission, and it expressly granted the company's motion in limine to exclude the videotape and any evidence of liability. The court further concluded that "the conduct here . . . makes no sense in terms of punitives" and "how [Safeway] converted these items[] doesn't matter," and thus denied Ms. Edwards's request to present evidence of punitive damages or to consider giving a punitive damages instruction. Although Ms. Edwards renewed this request on the day of trial, the trial court again denied Ms. Edwards's request to present evidence of punitive damages. Both before and at trial, the trial court repeatedly denied Ms. Edwards's attempts to even discuss evidence tending to show she was entitled to such damages. At trial, Ms. Edwards was only permitted to present evidence of compensatory damages. The jury awarded her everything she asked for.

         II. Amending the Complaint

         Ms. Edwards argues the trial court erred in denying her motion to amend the complaint to include negligence claims. Her initial complaint, filed on August 5, 2015, did not make such claims. Though discovery in the case closed on August 18, 2016, Ms. Edwards did not file the motion to amend until January 23, 2017, a few months before trial. The trial court denied it as untimely. We affirm this ruling.

         Rule 15 gives trial courts discretion to allow plaintiffs to amend their complaints after the time to file an amendment as of right has passed. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 15(a)(3); see also Crowley v. N. Am. Telecomm. Ass'n, 691 A.2d 1169, 1174 (D.C. 1997). The rule states that permission to amend should be granted "freely . . . when justice so requires." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 15(a)(3). We review a trial court's denial of a motion to amend for abuse of discretion to determine whether the decision was "predicated on some valid ground." Eagle Wine & Liquor Co. v. Silverberg Elec. Co., 402 A.2d 31, 34 (D.C. 1979). "Factors affecting the court's discretion include: (1) the number of requests to amend; (2) the length of time that the case has been pending; (3) the presence of bad faith . . . ; (4) the merit of the proffered amended pleading; and (5) any prejudice to the non-moving party." Pannell v. District of Columbia, 829 A.2d 474, 477 (D.C. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the length of the time the case had been pending (eighteen months) weighed in favor of denying the motion to amend, as did the lateness of Ms. Edwards's motion, which on its own "may justify its denial if the moving party fails to state satisfactory reasons for the tardy filing and if the granting of the motion would require new or additional discovery." Id. Ms. Edwards did not provide an explanation for the lateness of the request other than "the interest of justice," and the addition of negligence claims to the conversion claim would have required Safeway to provide significant discovery on the supervision of their employees and the supervision of the employees of their contractor. On this record, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in denying Ms. Edwards's motion. See id. at 480; Eagle Wine, 402 A.2d at 35–36.

         III. ...


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