• October 29, 2014

hole-18221_1280Here is a situation that all experienced trial lawyers get to enjoy one time or another, though, fortunately, not all that often: a trial court gets a basic legal ruling completely wrong forcing a litigant to go through civil discovery, followed by a trial, followed by an adverse jury verdict, followed by reversal of the basis legal proposition that the defendant raised before the trial court at every possible opportunity.

In Olmstead County, Ray Barta agreed to let Gary Carlson come onto Barta’s property to chop down a bunch of trees, and sell the lumber. The two entered into a contract in which Carlson agreed not to sue Barta for any claims “arising out of the performance” of the contract. Then, in “performing the contract,” driving his 28,000 lb. harvester over Barta’s property, Carlson unwittingly drove onto a frozen pond and his harvester broke through.

So Carlson sued Barta.

Barta, in defense, pointed the trial court to the contract but, to his undoubtedly considerable disappointment, the trial court reasoned that Barta was being sued for negligence, not for breach of contract. Therefore, the trial court concluded, the contractual disclaimer was irrelevant.

Plus, the trial court reasoned, a jury might find that Barta was negligent before entering into the contract when he showed Carlson the property but failed to point out the water hazard.

Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals patched the holes in the trial court’s analysis and reversed the judgment against Barta.

All’s well that ends well, one might conclude. On the other hand, our legal system generally leaves successful defendants responsible for their own legal fees (and successful plaintiffs, as well). So Barta gets to celebrate his belated win but it might be a modest party given the significant cost of the victory.


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