If Attorney’s Fees Are Authorized By Statute For One Claim But Not All Claims In A Lawsuit Does The Court Still Award Attorney’s Fees?
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.
Unrun v. Purina Mills, LLC, 289 Kan. 1185, 221 P.3d 1130 (2009).
This case addresses the following issues:
- Under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, what constitutes “willful conduct?”
- How are attorneys’ fees award under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act when there is also another, non-fee shifting claim?
- Does a caption on a jury verdict form, naming a defendant’s insurance company, constitute reversible error?
A jury found for two farmers for claims arising from the sale of not-as-promised cattle feed. Id. at 1188. The court determined that the Plaintiffs had proven “willful conduct” by the Defendant, because the Plaintiffs showed the Defendant “intended to harm the consumers.” Id. at 1196. The court also found that attorneys’ fees were to be award under the Kansas Consumer Protection Act regardless of whether bad faith existed and that the Plaintiffs had sufficiently segregated the time spent on each claim. Id. at 1202-04. Finally, the fact that the jury verdict form named the insurance company rather than the Defendant did not require a new trial. Id. at 1999.
In this case, the Plaintiffs were two cattle farmers. Id. at 1187. The Plaintiff attended a presentation hosted by Defendant, a cattle feed manufacturer and retailer. Id. The presentation was for a feeding supplement which was composed of various products and designed to add weight to cattle. Id. Thought the feed worked well for a while, the second batch delivered began causing severe problems. Id. at 1187. Several cows died, all the cattle stopped eating, and several pregnant cows lost unborn calves. Id. The Plaintiffs filed claims under both the Kansas Consumer Protection Act and breach of warranties. Id. The verdict form provided to the jury was drafted by the Defendant, and mistakenly named the Plaintiffs and Defendant’s insurance company, rather than the Defendant itself. Id. at 1189. The jury returned a verdict for the Plaintiffs and awarded attorneys’ fees. Id.
The first issue for the court was whether the Kansas Consumer Protection Act required an intention to harm by a defendant. Id. at 1194. Relying on the statute’s language— “the willful failure to state a material fact or the willful concealment…of a material fact”—the court found that this language “must also include an intent to harm the consumer.” Id. This means that there must be an “act performed with a designed purpose or intent…to do wrong or to cause an injury.” Id. The court found that the evidence in this case was sufficient to meet this standard. Id. at 1195.
The next issue was whether the trial court had properly award attorneys’ fees to the Plaintiffs. Id. at 1200. The court noted that “a court may not award attorney fees absent statutory authority,” such as the Kansas Consumer Protection Act. Id. The Defendant argued that a plaintiff must show bad faith on the part of the defendant to justify attorneys’ fees. Id. at 1201. However, the court found that the statute included no such bad-faith requirement, meaning fees were properly awarded without any finding of bad faith. Id. Further, the court noted that the Plaintiffs had properly divide its billed time between the Kansas Consumer Protection Act claim (which included fees) and the other claims (which did not include fees). Id. at 1203-04. The court would not find it an error to award fees for time that benefit both claims, so long as the time was necessary to pursue the consumer protection claim. Id.
The final issue dealt with the normally forbidden mentioning of insurance. Id. at 1197. A party is normally prohibited from mentioning insurance, and it may be a reversal error if insurance is place before the jury. Id. However, the court noted that the fact that the verdict form named the Defendant’s insurance company rather than the Defendant did not warrant reversal in this case. Id. at 1198. The court relied on two facts to arrive at this conclusion. Id. at 1198-99. First, the caption of the verdict form was insignificant compared to the evidence actually presented to the jury. Id. at 1199. It was unlike the jury was highly influenced by the caption, and the court expressed some doubt that the jury even read the caption. Id. Second, the Defendant had been asked to draft the verdict form in this case. Id. at 1198. Because the Defendant inadvertently interjected its own insurance coverage, the court was not willing to grant the Defendant a new trial for its own mistake. Id.
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