In order for appellate courts to have jurisdiction, or the ability to review and determine the merit of an appeal, there must first be a valid final judgment from a lower court. In a recent opinion, the Fourth Circuit made clear that a judgment must contain specific, “decretal” language in order to be considered valid. In this opinion, the issue was whether the judgment was in fact valid, since two lawsuits had been consolidated and judgment rendered against multiple defendants. The appellate court made clear that in order to have jurisdiction, they must have specific language that makes clear against whom the judgment has been rendered, and in which amount. When the court lacks jurisdiction to consider the merits of an appeal, it will be dismissed without prejudice or converted to an application for a supervisory writ.
The facts indicated that Larry Spencer’s tractor-trailer collided with a truck in which Joseph Urquhart was a passenger. Urquhart filed a Petition for Damages against Spencer, as well as Mr. Spencer’s employer (the owner of the rig) and their liability insurer. Urquhart then amended his Petition to add the driver of the vehicle in which he was traveling, James Nye, as well as his insurer. Then, Mr. Nye filed a Petition for Damages against Spencer, the owner of the rig, and the liability insurer. The lawsuits were consolidated, and Urquhart’s claims against Mr. Nye and his insurer were dismissed after reaching a settlement.
Following a bench trial, the trial court rendered a judgment and ordered the defendants to pay damages. After considering the evidence and the arguments at trial, the court ordered that the defendants pay $38,000 in damages to Urquhart and that Nye receive $479,362.45 in damages. The damages were further divided into categories, including past general damages ($10,000) and future general damages ($50,000), as well as future special medical damages ($211,798.60) and other costs.
Both Urquhart and Nye filed Motions for New Trial and to Amend Judgment, which were denied by the trial court. Spencer, the owner of the rig, and their liability insurer filed a Motion and Order for Suspensive Appeal. The trial court granted this motion, and then Mr. Nye filed a Motion and Order for Devolutive Appeal, which was granted.
The appellate court stated that before considering an appeal, the court must establish whether they have subject matter jurisdiction. Only when there is a valid, final judgment, with “decretal language,” which is precise and definite, is there a final judgment. If there is not the necessary decretal language, the judgment is not final and appealable.
To be “decretal,” the language in a judgment must name the party in favor of whom the ruling has been ordered and the party against whom the ruling has been ordered. It must also name the relief granted or denied. The appellate court stated that relief that has been granted cannot refer to an extrinsic source, such as pleadings or reasons for judgment.
Here, the appellate court stated that when there are multiple defendants, failing to name the particular defendant against whom judgment is rendered can result in an invalid judgment. In another appellate case, the court had stated that failing to name the defendant against whom judgment had been rendered makes the judgment fatally defective. This is because it cannot be discerned against whom the judgment must be enforced.
A valid, appealable judgment must also express the defendant’s degree of fault, as a percentage. When it is unknown which amount each defendant is obligated to pay, since the judgment does not have the necessary decretal language, the judgment is not valid.
The judgment in the case at hand was not a valid, appealable judgment, according to the appellate court. The decretal language did not name the defendant. Instead, it used the term “defendants” when there were five of them, and three went to trial. Since it could not be determined against whom the judgment could be enforced, the judgment was invalid. Additionally, it did not express the degree of fault of each defendant as a percentage, nor did it state whether the defendants were jointly liable.
Since the judgment did not contain definitive, decretal language, the appellate court stated they could not exercise appellate jurisdiction. The court stated they must then review whether they could convert the appeal to an application for a supervisory writ. Since an adequate remedy exists by appeal, once a precise and definite judgment has been entered, the court stated they would not convert the appeal to an application for a supervisory writ.
In conclusion, the appeal did not contain the necessary decretal language, since it did not specify the defendants against whom the judgment had been rendered, which defendants were jointly liable, or the degree of fault of each defendant. Since there was not a valid, appealable judgment, the court did not have jurisdiction to consider the merit of the appeals.
The appeals were dismissed and remanded.
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