Mississippi Legal Update July-August 2014

Bennett: Landlord Duty in Home Invasion
Charter Oak: Waiver of Right to Subrogation
Ashmore: Dismissal Based on False Testimony
Broome: Six-Year Statute of Limitations for Magnuson-Moss Act Claim

Mississippi Landlord’s Duty To Keep Premises Reasonably Safe In Home Invasion Context:  Foreseeability Based On Atmosphere Of Violence Within Apartment Complex

Nekole Bennett, et al, v. Highland Park Apartments LLC, et al., No. 2012-CA-01629-COA. Tenants were injured during a home invasion. The assailants entered through an open unguarded gate of an apartment complex and forcibly entered their apartment. The Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the landlord. A question of fact existed as to the landlord’s duty to keep the premises reasonably safe because this type of criminal home invasion was foreseeable given the atmosphere of violence within the apartment complex. Also, factual issues existed concerning breach of duty based on the operation of the security gate, improper lighting, and lack of security patrols or guards. But for the landlord’s failure to address these issues, the harm and damage to the tenant could have been avoided. As such, summary judgment was in error.

Read the full opinion.


Insured’s Attempt to Waive Insurer’s Right of Subrogation Held Invalid

The Charter Oak Fire Insurance Co. v. B.J. Enterprises, No. 2012-CA-00519-COA (Court of Appeals of Mississippi). The insurance policy allowed the named insured to waive the insurer’s right of subrogation after loss if the alleged tortfeasor was the named insured’s tenant. After a jury trial in Charter Oaks’ subrogation lawsuit in favor of BJ, alleged to have been responsible for the fire loss, the Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. That is, Charter Oaks won the appeal. Despite the named insured’s principal owning or controlling several business entities involved in a series of lease and sublease agreements, at the end of which was sub-lessee BJ, there was no lease agreement between the named insured and BJ. Notwithstanding controlling or common ownership, the Court of Appeals would not disregard the five corporate entities to circumvent the absence of a lease agreement between the named insured and BJ.

More specifically, MCH was the named insured under the Charter Oaks policy. TranSource owned the property. MCH managed the property. James H. owned both MCH and TranSource. Trans-Pro had a lease-purchase agreement for the property. Meanwhile, TranSource leased the property to Trans-Pro. Jackson Truck, also owed in part by James H., bought Trans-Pro and assumed the lease-purchase agreement. Jackson Truck subleased the property to JFF, controlled and owned by James H. JFF subleased the property to BJ, an entity neither owned nor controlled by James H.

Allegedly, BJ caused the fire. Policy limits did not cover the extent of the fire loss. The policy granted the insurer the right to subrogation. The insurer and insured agreed to seek subrogation against the party responsible for the fire. Later, James H. and the co-owner of Jackson Truck, individually and on behalf of MCH, TranSource and Jackson Truck, purported to waive the right of subrogation against JFF and BJ since the loss occurred on property in which JFF and BJ were tenants. The Charter Oak policy contained language, as follows:

But you may waive your rights against another party in writing: . . .

2. After a loss to your Covered Property or Covered Income only if, at time of loss, that party is one of the following:
a. Someone Insured by the insurance;
b. A business firm:
(1) Owned or controlled by you; or
(2) That owns or controls you; or
c. Your tenant.

The question before the Court of Appeals was whether MCH, as the named insured, had the right to waive Charter Oak’s right of subrogation against BJ. The appellate court answered the question by finding that BJ was not MCH’s tenant. There was no lease agreement between MCH and BJ. It did not matter that James H. had absolute control of MCH and TranSource. It did not matter that James H. had controlling ownership of JFF. Nor did it matter that James H. was a one-half owner of Jackson Truck. Since there was no lease agreement between MCH, the named insured, and BJ, the alleged tortfeasor, there was no valid waiver of subrogation under the Charter Oak policy.

Read the full opinion.

Personal Injury Plaintiffs’ Case Dismissed Based On “Pattern of False Testimony 

In Ashmore v. Mississippi Authority on Educational Television (No. 2012-CA-01297-SCT; August 14, 2014), the defendants moved the trial court to dismiss the personal injury plaintiffs’ lawsuit based on a “pattern of false testimony” that went to the heart of the case: the plaintiff’s medical history; the basis of claimed disability; and seeking similar damages in a separate lawsuit.  After the trial court granted the motion and dismissed the case, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the underlying decision.  The trial court had found the plaintiffs’ deposition testimony to contain “willful misrepresentations”, constituting a “deliberate attempt to subvert the judicial process.”  Reviewing the matter under an abuse of discretion standard, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated:

“Truth and justice complement each other.  Can true justice ever be accorded on false testimony?  We think not.  Should violators be rewarded, or only have their hands slapped, for making ‘willful misrepresentations,’ which, if not exposed, result in ill-gotten gain? ‘”

“The rule-designated tribunal, a trial court, found the [plaintiffs’] pattern of lying and concealment to be ‘willful misrepresentations’ and a ‘deliberate attempt to subvert the judicial process.’”

“If trial judges lack the authority to throw dishonest parties out of court when their lies are exposed, then we will never achieve true justice.”

Read the full opinion.


Broome v. General Motors, LLC, No. 2013-CA-01580-SCT (August 14, 2014)

The UCC’s six year statute of limitations applies to Magnuson-Moss Act Claims arising from the sale of a motor-vehicle. The Broomes purchased a Chevrolet in April of 2010. The vehicle came with a three-year or 36,000 mile warranty. The vehicle suffered from various defects the dealership was unable to fix. In December 2011 the Broomes filed suit against the manufacturer, General Motors, for breach of written and implied warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Act. The trial court dismissed the Broomes complaint as untimely based upon the statute of limitations. The appropriate statute of limitations for a Magnuson-Moss Act claim in Mississippi was an issue of first impression.

The Magnuson-Moss Act creates a federal right to a private cause of action for breach of warranty and service contract obligations. The federal law does not contain a statute of limitations. The statute of limitations contained in the most analogous state law applies. GM argued the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act was most analogous. This legislation contains a statute of limitations of one year or eighteen months from delivery of the vehicle, whichever is earlier. Under this statute, the Broomes claims were time barred. The Broomes argued for an application of the Mississippi’s enactment of the UCC. This legislation provides for a six year statute of limitations.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed the trial court and found the UCC to be most analogous to the Magnuson-Moss Act. The court reasoned both the UCC and Magnuson-Moss were broad in scope and applied to both implied and express warranties, whereas the Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act was limited to vehicles and only applied to express warranties. Furthermore, the Motor Vehicle Warranty Enforcement Act expressly states it does not in any way limit the rights or remedies which are otherwise available to a consumer under any other law. The Broomes’ claims were not time barred, the UCC’s six year statute applied.

Read the full opinion.