The Supreme Court of Connecticut recently reaffirmed its strict adherence to the final judgment rule, holding that parties cannot agree to withdraw claims without prejudice in an effort to create a final judgment and confer appellate jurisdiction.
In Mazurek v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 284 Conn. 16 (2007), Sperry Rail Service (“Sperry Rail”) hired the plaintiff’s employer, Anco Engineering, Inc. (“Anco”), to repair one of its railroad cars. Sperry rented “mobile scaffolding” from Handy Rent-All Center (“Handy”), which Anco’s workers, including the plaintiff, used to perform the repair work. The scaffolding contained “WARNING” labels saying not to “use boxes, ladders, or any other means to increase the working height.” The plaintiff was injured when he fell off the scaffolding while using a ladder to reach the roof of the rail car.
The plaintiff sued, among others, Handy, Sperry, and Great American Insurance Company (“Great American”), which owned the land on which the plaintiff was injured, alleging various theories of negligence and recklessness. The plaintiff’s primary theory of liability was that Handy and Sperry failed to warn the plaintiff about the dangers of the scaffolding and failed to create a safe worksite. Anco filed an intervening complaint seeking to recover monies paid through workers’ compensation.
In October 2004, the trial court granted partial summary judgment in Sperry’s favor, “leaving only the claims [against Sperry] alleging negligent employment of an incompetent or untrustworthy contractor.” In February 2005, the trial court rendered summary judgment in Handy’s favor on all claims against Handy, concluding that (i) the failure to warn claim was barred by the exclusivity provision of Connecticut’s Products Liability Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-572m, and (ii) the remaining negligence claims failed because Handy owed no duty to the plaintiff. The plaintiff appealed from the judgment in favor of Handy. (Unlike in federal court, a ruling that terminates a party from a case is immediately appealable in Connecticut even if claims remain pending against other parties in the case.)
In June 2005, however—while the appeal against Handy was pending—Sperry and Great American filed a joint motion for judgment based on an agreement of the parties. Specifically, the plaintiff agreed to withdraw his remaining claims of negligent hiring against Sperry. This would allow the plaintiff to appeal from the partial summary judgment ruling in favor of Sperry and to consolidate that appeal with the pending appeal against Handy. The plaintiff also agreed to withdraw all claims against Great American, and Anco agreed to withdraw its intervening complaint. The parties further agreed that “in the event that one or both of the . . . appeals by the [p]laintiffs as to . . . Handy and Sperry result[ed] in a reversal of the final judgment or judgments and the ordering of a new trial, then in any such subsequent new trial, the [p]laintiffs’ withdrawn claims against Sperry [and Great American] may be reinstated and tried, and any defenses Sperry [or Great American] may have to such reinstatement, including but not limited to the defenses of statute of limitations, collateral estoppel and res judicata, will be deemed waived . . . .” The parties also agreed that even if the “judgments in favor of Sperry and/or Handy [are sustained on appeal] the [p]laintiffs will nevertheless be permitted to reinstate and try the claims now being withdrawn against Sperry and Great American . . . and any defenses . . . to such reinstatement . . . will be deemed waived . . . .” The trial court granted the joint motion for judgment in accordance with the parties’ agreement, and the plaintiff appealed accordingly.
On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment in favor of Handy, which undoubtedly was a “final judgment” under Connecticut law because summary judgment had been rendered on all claims brought against Handy. With respect to the plaintiff’s appeal from the judgment in favor of Sperry, however, the Court, sua sponte, dismissed the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court noted that the parties’ agreement created “an artificial final judgment” because the plaintiff retained all rights to reinstate and try the withdrawn claims, regardless of the outcome on appeal. “In effect, therefore, the plaintiff has not withdrawn any of his claims, but has only put them on hold pending the outcome of these appeals, leaving the plaintiff free to later pursue them. To allow such procedural manipulation to confer jurisdiction upon this court would encourage exactly the kind of piecemeal appeals that the final judgment rule is intended to prevent.” Accordingly, the Court dismissed the appeal against Sperry, reinforcing the principle that “[n]either the parties nor the trial court . . . can confer jurisdiction upon [an appellate] court.”
Mazurek is a reminder that the Connecticut Supreme Court takes the final judgment rule seriously. A failure to consider the rule carefully may result in a dismissal with wasted effort by all parties.