CAN THE COURT PROPERLY GRANT SUMMARY JUDGMENT BASED UPON A PARTY’S OPENING STATEMENT?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Rodgers v. Crum, 168 Kan. 668, 215 P.2d 190 (1950).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can the Court properly grant summary judgment based upon a party’s opening statement?
In this case, the defense counsel made a muddy and unclear opening statement. Id. at 669. The opening was so difficult to follow, in fact, that the trial court interpreted it as admitting to facts fatal to Defendant’s defense and granted judgment to the Plaintiff. Id. After conducting a “close analysis of the statement,” the court found that Defendant had outline a defense of abandonment of property. Id. at 674. The court determined that, under the appropriate circumstances, judgment could be entered because of a defect opening statement. Id. at 673. However, the Defendant’s opening statement in this case did not meet that standard, and thus a new trial was required. Id. at 674.
In this case, the Plaintiff was suing Defendant for conversion—or civil theft—of some farm equipment. Id. at 668. Defendant’s defense was that Plaintiff had voluntarily abandoned the property for over a year, therefore making the Defendant’s action of selling the equipment proper. Id. at 669. Plaintiff made his opening statement to the jury, establishing a full cause of action for conversion. Id. Defendant then took her turn, but this statement “was not as clear and concise as it might have been.” Id. The Defendant admitted that Plaintiff owned the property and that she sold it. Id. Defendant went into great reasoning as to why she sold the property, but not into why it was permissible for her to do so. Id. Immediately after opening statements, the Plaintiff requested judgment on all aspects of his claim other than damages. Id. at 670. The trial court granted the request, finding that Defendant had neither countered any element of Plaintiff’s claim nor present a sufficient defense. Id.
The court began by determining, based upon the admissions that had been made in the opening statements, which defenses would have been available to the Defendant. Id. at 671. Having outlined those defenses, the court found that the defense of abandonment of the property had been properly preserved, at least as far as the admissions were concerned. Id. at 673-74. Thus, Defendant’s only hope was that she had made sufficient allegations to support this defense. Id. at 673.
The court notes that judgment based upon opening statements can be proper in Kansas, so long as “the party making it has admitted facts which necessarily and absolutely preclude recovery or defense.” Id. However, the court noted that “where there is doubt or ambiguity in such a statement,” the court will presume that a party has not admitted away its case. Id. Carefully examining the opening statement, the court could not find the requisite absolute admissions to defeat the defense of abandonment. Id. at 674. Instead, the court found that there were ambiguous statements made by defense counsel, and that these ambiguous statements should have been interpreted in favor of the Defendant. Id. Thus, the court remanded to the case for a new trial, forgiving the mistake of the Defendant’s attorney in this case but warning future litigants about the dangers of a sloppy opening statement. Id.