• July 26, 2011

For obvious efficiency reasons, courts do not like “claim splitting,” where a litigant takes what should be a single lawsuit and “multiplies” it.  On the other hand, sometimes a litigants bring more than one lawsuit based on a single incident for good reasons.  For example, one suffers property injury in a car accident with minor costs (repairs, tow truck)  and only later discovers one also suffered permanent physical injury in the accident, with substantially more damages (medical bills).

A large number of legal disputes, probably most legal disputes, concern relatively small sums of money.  For such cases, states have “small claims court,” known in Minnesota as “conciliation court.”  It’s a stripped down streamlined “people’s court,” for legal claims where less than $7,500 is sought.  What happens when a litigant, after consultation with counsel, brings a conciliation court claim for property damage, only later to find she has a claim for physical injury, in excess of the conciliation court cap?  Will the later suit be barred? Who decides? What standard applies?

In Kern v. Janson, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals (and upheld the trial court’s decision) allowing a plaintiff to “vacate” her win in conciliation court so she might bring a later action in the district court.

Essentially, plaintiff Michelle Kern recovered money from defendant James Torborg  in connection with property damage from a car accident.  Some time later, allegedly discovering permanent physical injury that she had not known about when she sued James, Kern then sued wife/driver Jennifer Torborg (covered under the same insurance policy).

To bring the later suit, Kern sought to have the earlier conciliation court decision “vacated” so she would not be barred by it from a later suit based on the same accident.

Defendants argued that Kern had consulted with a lawyer prior to bringing her conciliation court case and, they argued, Supreme Court precedent dictated that the trial court did not have the discretion under these circumstances to vacate the conciliation court judgment.

Last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected defendants’ arguments.  The case was remanded back to the trial court “for further proceedings.”

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