Tort Law

Editor:
Keith A. Cutler, Esquire

Trial court may not weigh credibility in ruling on motion for summary judgment.  Loth v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 94105 (Mo. App. E.D., April 12, 2011), Mooney, J. (Ahrens, J. dissenting)
Plaintiff filed a FELA claim for injuries suffered while working for Defendant.  While his FELA claim was pending, Plaintiff filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  However, Plaintiff did not list his FELA claim as an asset in his bankruptcy schedules; Plaintiff was ultimately granted a discharge in bankruptcy.   Four years later, Plaintiff asked the bankruptcy court to reopen his bankruptcy case in order to include his FELA claim as an asset, which the bankruptcy court allowed.   Thereafter, in the still-pending FELA action, Defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that the FELA claim was barred by the judicial estoppel doctrine.  The doctrine operates to prevent a party from taking a position in one judicial proceeding, and reaping the benefits therefrom, then taking a contrary position in a subsequent judicial proceeding to reap additional benefits.   Plaintiff argued that the omission of his FELA claim from his bankruptcy was inadvertent and unintentional.  He claimed he advised his bankruptcy attorney of the FELA claim, and relied on his attorney's advice and on his attorney's preparation of the bankruptcy schedules.  Defendant argued that Plaintiff's omission was not inadvertent or unintentional, but that a clear financial motive for not disclosing his pending FELA claim as an asset in the bankruptcy proceeding could be inferred.   The trial court acknowledged that the parties strenuously disputed whether Plaintiff's omission was deliberate or a good-faith mistake.  Nevertheless, the trial court determined that Plaintiff's omission was deliberate, and granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant.   Plaintiff appealed.
HeldReversed and remanded.  The court of appeals held "It is well-established that the court is not allowed to make credibility determinations when considering summary judgment motions.  . . . Rather, such matters are for the trier of fact.  When a court is faced with a credibility determination on an issue material to the cause of action, summary judgment is not appropriate."  The court of appeals concluded by stating, "Because there are two plausible inferences that can reasonably be drawn from the evidence regarding Plaintiff's intent in failing to disclose his FELA claim in his bankruptcy action, a genuine dispute exists and summary judgment is not proper."

The Missouri Bar Courts Bulletin, 11-May