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Welcome to our Supreme and Appellate Court summaries webpage.  On this page, I provide abbreviated summaries of decisions from the Connecticut appellate courts which highlight important issues and developments in Connecticut law, and provide practical practice pointers to litigants.  I have been summarizing these court decisions internally for our firm for more than 10 years, and providing relevant highlights to my municipal and insurance practice clients for almost as long.  It was suggested that a wider audience might appreciate brief summaries of recent rulings that condense often long and confusing decisions down to their basic elements.  These summaries are limited to the civil litigation decisions based on my own particular field of practice, so you will not find distillations of the many criminal and matrimonial law decisions on this page.  I may from time to time add commentary, and may even criticize a decision’s reasoning. Such commentary is solely my opinion . . . and when mistakes of trial counsel are highlighted because they triggered a particular outcome, I will try to be mindful of the adage . . . “There but for the grace of God . . ..”  I hope the reader finds these summaries helpful. – Edward P. McCreery

Posted April 29, 2014

This case was described by the Supreme Court as the culmination of a disagreement between two attorneys which had lasted decades.  Defendant kept appealing decisions of the Trial Court.  Plaintiff moved for an award of attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of the second appeal, which was granted.  That award was appealed and eventually remanded for an evidentiary hearing, wherein the plaintiff sought yet more attorneys’ fees to respond to defendant’s third appeal. The defendant objected and filed a motion to DQ the Trial Judge who had awarded the fees the first time around.  The Trial Judge denied the DQ motion on the basis it was not timely filed, and then awarded plaintiff its attorneys’ fees for all the defendant’s appeals.  The defendant refused to pay and was held in contempt by the Trial Judge.  The defendant filed a fourth appeal.  In the fourth appeal, the Appellate Court held the Trial Judge should have recused himself after the first remand, since he had decided the underlying issue.  The plaintiff then appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.  In this decision, the Supreme Court held that the Appellate Court should not have ruled on the Trial Court’s disqualification, because no one appealed the Trial Court’s conclusion that any disqualification right was waived by failing to comply with Practice Book § 1-23, requiring the motion be filed ten days’ before a hearing. 

  • AC34363 - R.I. Pools, Inc. v. Paramount Concrete, Inc.

Plaintiff pool service supplier sued concrete supplier for defective product installed in nineteen pools under Connecticut’s Product Liability Act § 52-572n.  Plaintiff added a claim for punitive damages asserting defendant’s reckless disregard for safety based on allegations of failure to disclose the defect and improperly training personnel.  Plaintiff claimed it was out $2.7mm ($145k per pool) ……but agreed the jury would have to take out profits to the plaintiff on the rebuilds…. for a maximum award of $2.3mm to replace all of the pools.  The Trial Court instructed the jury that it had to award damages only based upon what the evidence showed as the damages caused to each pool.  The jury returned a verdict for $2.7mm, and found that the defendant should be liable for punitive damages, which were later awarded by the Trial Court as plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

On appeal, first it was held that it did not matter that the plaintiff’s expert did not examine each and every pool, and instead, relied upon statements from plaintiff’s employees that all the pools exhibited the same problems with concrete shrinkage and cracking.  This was an issue solely for cross-examination.  Experts can rely upon material information they learn from others, and may render opinions  based on hypothetical facts fairly supported by the evidence.  Connecticut Code of Evidence § 7-4(c).

The amount of damages, however, had to be set aside.  It looked as if the jury simply adopted plaintiff’s closing argument of $2.7mm (including the improper addition of profits) without taking into account the actual evidence of the damages incurred per pool.  Not all the pools were the same size, nor repaired in the same manner.  Some pool owners were paid off (by the plaintiff’s insurer) for less than the cost to replace.   This decision concluded there was no rational way to match the jury’s award with the evidence and the Trial Court should have set aside the verdict.

The Appellate Court next turned to the issue of punitive damages.  First, the court held that punitive damages may be awarded, even when a cause of action is based on property damages only.  C.G.S. § 52-240(b).  It is not required that the harm be to a consumer, and such a claim may be combined with a products liability lawsuit.  Whether a punitive damage claim is only appropriate when there is a risk of bodily injury cannot be decided in this case because the trial court jury charge was correct and there was no jury interrogatory on this issue.  That issue will have to wait another day.

There was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the defendant was more than merely negligent, but acted in reckless disregard for the safety of product users.  The evidence suggested that the defendant lacked the basic understanding of the concrete product, and was unconcerned how it was delivered or how it would impact the end user.  This was borne out by the company officers who testified ignorance of how the product they were selling even worked.  They had only recently formed their company but never took the time to be certified by the American Concrete Institute or take courses offered by the product manufacturer.  The evidence was of a small, poorly run, poorly equipped company, lacking quality control and adequate staff training. [Wow - in the old days, that was called negligence….not conduct intended to harm. ]

Finally, the defendant challenged the amount of the $700k punitive damages award.  The Trial Court had upped the $150/hour rate charged by the insurer’s subrogation lawyers to a market rate of $325/hour.  The decision held that in a time of increasing costs of litigation, the award of attorneys’ fees remains a viable manner to measure punitive damages, but the award cannot exceed the amount of the plaintiff’s actual expenses in the litigation.  The Trial Court improperly increased the hourly rate of the attorney who had been paid by the insurance company.  This is only proper when a trial court is awarding statutory attorneys’ fees, such as under the Lode Star calculation.  Here, statutory recklessness punitive damages can only be based upon actual litigation expenses which, in fact, were charged at a rate of $150 per hour.  It was improper to award punitive damages at $325 per hour, and that part of the award was reversed.

  • AC35464 - Yorgensen v. Chapdelaine

Plaintiff was issued a building permit to construct a barn, but town officials observed grading adjacent to the wetlands and issued a cease and desist order.  Plaintiff claimed her property was exempt from the wetlands regs as a farm, and the town IWC informed her that she still had to file an application with a plan, showing the location of the wetlands and the activity planned and then it would decide if her activity was exempt.  When the plaintiff did not respond with a plan, the IWC upheld the cease and desist order.  Instead of filing an appeal of the IWC’s ruling, the plaintiff brought a declaratory judgment action, claiming the Commission had no jurisdiction over her activity.  The town then commenced an enforcement action and the lawsuits were consolidated.  On appeal, the issue was whether the plaintiff could bring a declaratory judgment action or whether that should have been handled by an appeal of the agency’s decision.

This decision reaffirmed that in Connecticut, the first arbiter of jurisdiction over a wetlands lies with the local inland wetlands commission itself, not with the courts.  The property owner should have submitted a plan to the commission as it requested for it to determine whether her operations were exempt under § 22a-40(a).  It is not for a court in the first instance to consider whether or not property is considered farming for the purposes of C.G.S. § 22a-40(a).  Accordingly, a party cannot file a declaratory judgment action to circumvent the primary jurisdiction of the IWC.  The proper way to vindicate a legal position is not to disobey the orders, but rather, to challenge them on appeal. 

Finally, the decision held there was sufficient evidence that the plaintiff had violated C.G.S. § 22a-44 by performing regulated activities which were personally observed by town officials from adjoining property .

  • AC35303 - Spatta v. American Classic Cars, LLC

Did you know that the 57 Chevy is so popular that you can now buy all the parts, including the body, to make an entire replica car?  Well the plaintiff was promised by the defendant that he could build one in 3 months for 100k.  Two years and 200k later the plaintiff felt he had been delivered a bucket of bolts and sued the defendant. The defendant’s responses to discovery seeking all parts invoices and employee training documents on building such a car were less than stellar.  This decision held that the Trial Court properly denied defendant’s motion to reargue a default discovery sanction after it failed to comply with three orders from the Trial Court to supplement its discovery responses.  A footnote in the decision called the defendant’s argument that discovery compliance was dependent upon whether the plaintiff’s theory or the defendant’s theory prevailed, as nothing more than “game playing,” and that such game playing is what resulted in the default.  The documents either exist or they do not, the footnote states.  The existence of documents responsive to discovery is not dependent upon a party’s theory of liability prevailing or not.

  • AC35467 - Valenzisi v. Connecticut Education Assn.

Teacher dissatisfied with the union’s representation of him during termination proceedings, filed a direct cause of action against the Board of Education.  The trial Court dismissed the action for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which included a requirement that a complaint must first be filed with the Board of Labor Relations, pursuant to C.G.S. § 153(e).  When a motion to reargue was denied, the pro se plaintiff appealed, but he sought articulation from the wrong judge.  Not having the benefit of the Trial Court’s explanation for the denial of the motion to reargue, the Appellate Court declined review.  While the courts will allow self-represented litigants some latitude, they do not have a license to ignore the rules of procedure and substantive law

In this motor vehicle accident case, the Trial Court granted a motion in limine to preclude evidence of motor vehicle speed calculated by skid marks, replacement costs of plaintiff’s vehicle and the increase in the plaintiff’s insurance premium as a result of the accident.  The Appellate Court declined to review the correctness of this ruling because the plaintiff had failed to provide an adequate record on appeal.  The plaintiff even failed to include the motion in limine or the Court’s ruling on it, not to mention the transcripts of the oral arguments.  The plaintiff only submitted the trial transcript where he was not allowed to ask those questions.

 

The facts and holdings of any case may be redacted, paraphrased or condensed for ease of reading.  No summary can be an exact rendering of any decision, however, so interested readers are referred to the full decisions.  The docket number of each case is a hyperlink to the Connecticut Judicial Department online slip opinion.  ©2014 Pullman & Comley, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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