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Houston v. County of Boone

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Central Division

April 30, 2019

Derrick HOUSTON, Plaintiff,
COUNTY OF BOONE, et al., Defendants.


          Nanette K. Laughrey, United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is the Attorney Intervenors Edelman and Thompson, LLC's motion for summary judgment, Doc. 144, which is opposed by both Boone County and Insurer Intervenor Missouri Public Entity Risk Management Fund (MOPERM). For the following reasons, the motion is granted with respect to the County's unjust enrichment claim and denied with respect to the County's request to set aside the final judgment.

         I. Statement of Uncontroverted Material Fact [1]

         On July 13, 2016, Plaintiff Derrick Houston filed a complaint against the County of Boone and six of its employees. Doc. 159, ¶ 1. Houston alleged constitutional violations and state law claims arising out of an incident on October 3, 2015 and claimed that the incident caused Houston to suffer spine injuries and paralysis. Id. Attorney Intervenors Edelman and Thompson represented Houston, and the County's insurer, Missouri Public Entity Risk Management Fund (MOPERM), assumed the defense for both the County and the individual defendants. Id. at ¶¶ 2-3.

         Parties were scheduled to make their initial disclosures by November 1, 2016, and complete discovery by August 1, 2017. Id. at ¶ 7. On November 1, 2016, Houston made initial disclosures, which identified six individuals with discoverable information regarding “pre- and post-injury life” and approximately 40 heath care providers. Id. at ¶¶ 7-10. Medical records provided by Houston indicated that as of October 31, 2015, he had “full strength in the upper extremities[, ] 0/5 strength in lower extremities” and “absent sensation to light touch and pinprick below T2 and below, ” and that Houston had been diagnosed with an “incomplete T2 ASIA B Injury.” Id. at ¶ 12.

         On March 17, 2017, Houston was deposed. Id. at ¶ 19. The following exchange took place during the deposition:

Q: Are you able to get up out of that chair and walk today---
A: No, sir.
Q: ---around the house?
A: I wish I could. I really wish I could, man.
Q: If you had something to lean on, can you stand and lean?
A: No, sir.
Q: What have the doctors told you about what you can expect down the road as far as improvement or no improvement?
A: No. improvement.

Id. at ¶ 22. The same day, Houston made a demand to settle his claims in exchange for payment equal to MOPERM's policy limits. Id. at ¶ 17. The demand letter stated it was open for 14 days and that the present value of Houston's estimated life care plan was $5.7 million, based on an enclosed report prepared by Craig H. Lichtblau. Id. at 18; Doc. 145-1, pp. 6-7 (Demand Letter).

         On March 22 and March 23, MOPERM was advised regarding potential liability for acting in bad faith with respect to Houston's demand for settlement, as defense counsel was concerned that Houston was “trying to set up a bad faith claim.” Doc. 159, ¶¶ 23-24, 28. Counsel advised that Houston's “prospects for recovering some ability to ambulate” was not known, but that “there is at least a 50% chance” that the County will be found liable, in which case there would likely be a verdict in excess of the limits of MOPERM's insurance policy. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26, 33(d).

         The County opposed settling the case, in part because it doubted Houston was paralyzed, but at least one individual defendant demanded settlement. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30. When MOPERM was deciding whether to settle, MOPERM considered other factors besides whether Houston could walk. Id. at ¶ 34. MOPERM also considered “the facts, the law, the location, the likability or believability of involved parties in trying to come to a reasonable conclusion.” Doc. 145-4 (Weber Deposition), p. 67. At the time of settlement, counsel for the defendants had corresponded with, but not engaged, an expert to comment on liability and damages or review Houston's medical records, nor had the County interviewed or deposed any of the witnesses identified as having discoverable information. Doc. 159, ¶ 35; Doc. 145-2 (Berry Deposition), p. 208. Boone County never served interrogatories, requests for production of documents, or admissions. Doc. 159, ¶ 55.

         Defendants sought an extension of time to respond to Houston's demand for settlement, but the extension was denied. Doc. 161, ¶ 1. Houston accepted an offer to settle his claims against all defendants in exchange for $2 million on April 5, 2017. Doc. 159, ...

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