Estate of Winn v. Plaza Healthcare (CA1 8/10/10)

This was an attempt to create a new category of damages.

Mary Winn died in a nursing home. Her estate sued it under the Adult Protective Services Act. The Estate filed a motion for “summary judgment,” admitting that it had no financial loss (Mary had retired) but arguing that it should be awarded the “inherent value” of her life. The trial court denied it. After some procedural clumsiness and a compulsory-arbitration award for the defendant (which the court assumes was for lack of any damages; the Estate admitted it couldn’t prove pre-death pain and suffering, which a Supreme Court case – Denton – had allowed), this appeal resulted.

The APSA says that the court may award “actual and compensatory damages.” The Estate argued that “actual damages” includes the inherent value of life. The Court of Appeals disagreed. There is no evidence that the legislature intended this and if it had then it could have said so. If somebody wanted more damages then Mr. Winn should have filed a wrongful-death claim.

The Estate’s argument isn’t quite as silly as it sounds; it’s an attempt to follow-up Denton, which used verbal slight-of-hand with the “actual damage” language to produce a result the legislature surely never thought of.

The bigger problem here is bigger because it’s one seen all the time: a “motion for summary judgment” that isn’t. A motion for summary judgment seeks a judgment. A motion seeking a ruling on, for example, what the damages include doesn’t.  Most motions for summary judgment “on the issue of” something-or-other can’t properly result in a judgment. They’re motions in limine.

So why do the movants take on the burden of the summary-judgment standard? Two reasons. The first, and by far the most common, is that they haven’t thought about what they’re doing. They call their motion a “summary judgment” because they once saw someone else do that with a similar motion. (That’s how most lawyers learn most things and why so much of what they learn is wrong.) And too many lawyers aren’t comfortable with the fact that a motion “in limine” can be filed months or years before trial.

The other reason is equally wrong but not thoughtless. If the whole point of your case is to make new law then if you can manage to get the ruling called a judgment then maybe you can appeal it without further ado. That’s what these folks tried. But the Court of Appeals caught on – the flaw in this plan is that the court routinely will catch on – and kicked it back for arbitration.

And what of the estate of poor Mary Winn, now reduced by costs if not fees? A touchingly naive question. You surely can’t think that anyone in this saga, except Mr. Winn, was actually concerned about such a thing as that.


(link to opinion)