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Buskey v. American Legion Post #270

Supreme Court of Minnesota

April 4, 2018

William Buskey, et al., Appellants,
v.
American Legion Post #270, d/b/a Buffalo American Legion or Buffalo American Legion Post, Respondent.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Kay Nord Hunt, Lommen Abdo, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Guy E. Mattson, Heartland Injury Law, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, for appellants.

          Joseph A. Nilan, Joshua A. Dorothy, T. James Power, Gregerson, Rosow, Johnson & Nilan, Ltd., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Matthew J. Barber, James S. Ballentine, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Association for Justice.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The plain language of the actual-notice provision of the Civil Damages Act, Minnesota Statutes section 340A.802, subdivision 2 (2016), requires "[a]ctual notice of sufficient facts" to put the licensee on inquiry notice of "a possible claim, " and does not require actual notice of a possible claim.

         2. The actual-notice provision in Minnesota Statutes section 340A.802, subdivision 2, requires only notice of "sufficient facts, " and does not prescribe notice of certain indispensable facts.

         3. Under principles of agency law, notice to a licensee's liquor-liability attorney satisfies the actual-notice provision in Minnesota Statutes section 340A.802, subdivision 2.

         4. Drawing all reasonable inferences about actual notice in favor of appellants, we conclude that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to respondent.

         Reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          CHUTICH, Justice.

         Appellants William Buskey, et al. (the Buskeys) brought claims against respondent American Legion Post #270 (American Legion) under the Civil Damages Act for damages allegedly arising out of the death of Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the liquor licensee, American Legion, finding that the Buskeys failed to provide timely notice of their claims. The district court specifically concluded that the correspondence of the Buskeys' attorney with American Legion's liquor-liability insurer and liquor-liability attorney did not qualify as "[a]ctual notice" to American Legion under Minnesota Statutes section 340A.802, subdivision 2 (2016). A divided court of appeals affirmed, holding that the actual-notice provision required American Legion itself to have actual notice of each claimant's identity and intent to pursue a claim. Meyer v. Am. Legion Post #270, No. A16-0216, 2016 WL 7338739, at *6-7 (Minn.App. Dec. 19, 2016).

         Based on the plain language of the statute, we hold that the actual-notice provision requires actual notice of sufficient facts to put the licensee on inquiry notice of a possible claim, not actual notice of a possible claim. In addition, the statute's plain language does not require notice of certain indispensable facts; it requires notice only of "sufficient facts." Finally, based on principles of agency law, we hold that actual notice to a licensee's liquor-liability attorney is notice to the licensee under section 340A.802, subdivision 2. Applying these principles and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the Buskeys on this issue of actual notice, we hold that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to American Legion. Accordingly, we reverse and remand to the district court for reinstatement of the Buskeys' claims.

         FACTS

         The facts of this case are not in dispute. They involve three groups of plaintiffs who provided various forms of notice to American Legion, its liquor-liability insurer, and its attorney. Key to determining whether the actual-notice provision of Minnesota Statutes section 340A.802, subdivision 2, was satisfied is an understanding of who had notice of what and when. "The summary judgment standard mandates that we view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, " which is the Buskeys. Kelly v. Kraemer Constr., Inc., 896 N.W.2d 504, 506 (Minn. 2017).

         On October 19, 2012, Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey died in an automobile accident after her vehicle was hit by the car of drunk driver Zachary Jennings and hit again by a third car. Jennings had previously been drinking alcohol at American Legion. His car crossed the center line and struck Meyer-Buskey's vehicle, killing Meyer-Buskey and injuring passengers Jonathan Meyer, Meyer-Buskey's son; Kimberly Meyer, Meyer-Buskey's daughter-in-law; and Sonja Sjolander, a disabled adult in Meyer-Buskey's foster care.

         Following the accident, various occupants of Meyer-Buskey's vehicle and their relatives sued American Legion. Passengers Jonathan and Kimberly Meyer (the Meyers) and Sonja Sjolander (along with her guardian) brought claims for their injuries under the Civil Damages Act.[1] The Buskeys also brought claims under the Act for damages arising from Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey's death; these plaintiffs included Meyer-Buskey's spouse, William Buskey, and children, Jeremiah Buskey, Ben Meyer, Katie Hodgson, Jenny Venstad, and Elizabeth Bork. The Act provides a right of action to various persons injured by an illegal sale of alcohol to an intoxicated person, including "[a] spouse, child, parent, guardian, employer, or other person [otherwise] injured in person, property, or means of support, or who incurs other pecuniary loss." Minn. Stat. § 340A.801, subd. 1 (2016).

         The plaintiffs' complaint was served upon American Legion nearly 2 years after the tragic accident. American Legion first became aware of the accident, however, shortly after the collision from its own independent investigation. In the days and weeks following the accident, American Legion employees heard that Jennings had been involved in an accident involving a fatality after he consumed alcohol at American Legion. Less than 2 weeks after the accident, American Legion's manager had the waitress who served Jennings provide a written statement, which documented that she had served him four drinks but that he did not appear intoxicated. American Legion had no knowledge of any claims against it at this time. The issues here concern American Legion's notice of the Buskeys' claims.

         The Buskeys retained attorney Guy Mattson on October 25, 2012, in conjunction with their dram-shop claims against American Legion. This entry into an attorney-client relationship triggered the Buskeys' responsibility to provide written notice of their claims to American Legion. Minn. Stat. § 340A.802, subd. 2; see id., subd. 1 (2016) (describing the required contents of "written notice to the licensee"). This notice of claim "must be served by the claimant's attorney within 240 days of the date of entering an attorney-client relationship." Id., subd. 2. The Buskeys, therefore, had until June 22, 2013, to give American Legion notice of their claims. It is undisputed that the Buskeys never provided timely written notice to American Legion itself.

         The other injured passengers were separately represented. On November 28, 2012, Sjolander's attorney mailed her written notice to American Legion. This notice made no mention of Meyer-Buskey or her family. Five months after the fatal accident, in March 2013, an unidentified American Legion employee delivered Sjolander's notice to Thomes Insurance Agency, which then forwarded it to Capitol Specialty, American Legion's dramshop insurer.

         A Capitol Specialty employee then opened a new claim file and began investigating the accident. She identified Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey as a victim and found her obituary, which listed the names of her spouse and children. She also spoke to another insurance adjuster who informed her that Mattson was "Mary Jo's attorney." She then phoned Mattson and made notes in the file that "[h]e represents her husband Bill and their collective children - 2 from their marriage, she had 4 from a prior marriage and he had 2 from prior." She made no notes concerning the Buskeys' individual names.

         In response, Mattson faxed a letter to this same Capitol Specialty employee that is perhaps best described as a letter of representation. This letter, sent on March 22, 2013, is addressed to Capitol Specialty and references "Your Insured: American Legion" and "Date of Loss: 10/19/2012." The subject line reads "My Client: Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey, " but the text of the letter states that Mattson was "retained to represent the family of Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey for claims related to her death."[2]

         Around this same time, the Capitol Specialty employee contacted attorney Joseph Nilan and retained him to represent American Legion. She requested that the "file" be sent to Nilan on a compact disc, but the record does not establish if this file included her notes and the March 22, 2013 letter that she received from Mattson on the Buskeys' behalf.

         The record does not establish how Nilan came to know of the Buskeys or their counsel, but he reached out to Mattson by mail not long after Capitol Specialty retained his services. An April 5, 2013 letter from Nilan to Mattson referenced "Your Client: Family of Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey" and "Our Client: Buffalo American Legion Post" for the "Date of Loss: October 19, 2012." In this correspondence, Nilan requested that Mattson "[p]lease cease any communications with the American Legion and direct all future correspondence regarding this matter to our office."

         Shortly thereafter, the Wright County Sheriff personally served American Legion with a written notice of claim from the Meyers. Notably, this notice-of-claim letter referenced "the death[] of Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey, " but did not explicitly identify the Buskeys or their intent to bring claims of their own. By April 2013, then, American Legion had received timely written notice from Sjolander's attorney and the Meyers' attorney, but it had not received written notice from the Buskeys' attorney. The Buskeys made no further attempts to provide American Legion, or its attorney, with formal written notice within the 240-day timeframe, which ended on June 22, 2013. See Minn. Stat. § 340A.802.

         The Buskeys served and filed their lawsuit the following year, in fall 2014. Before the close of discovery, American Legion moved for summary judgment on the Buskeys' claims based on their failure to provide timely statutory notice. The Buskeys conceded that they did not provide timely written notice under subdivision 1. But the statute contains a separate notice provision in subdivision 2, which provides: "Actual notice of sufficient facts reasonably to put the licensee . . . on notice of a possible claim complies with the notice requirement." Minn. Stat. § 340A.802, subd. 2. The Buskeys argued that American Legion was on notice under this actual-notice provision.

         In support of its motion, American Legion offered an affidavit from its manager, which stated that no employee, manager, or officer of American Legion (1) knew that Mary Jo Meyer-Buskey had relatives with potential claims; (2) had any direct contact with any employees or agents of Capitol Specialty; or (3) knew of any communications between Capitol Specialty and the Buskeys' attorney. This affidavit was corroborated by the depositions of the Buskeys, who each testified that they had never communicated with anyone from American Legion about the fatal accident.

         The district court granted summary judgment to American Legion, holding that the Buskeys "did not provide facts sufficient to reasonably put American Legion on notice of their claims, " particularly "[a]bsent evidence indicating a direct communication between Capitol Specialty and American Legion regarding the identity of the Buskey plaintiffs." The court also concluded that it was "irrelevant" that American Legion had hired an attorney and that he had communicated with the Buskeys' counsel.[3]

         The court of appeals affirmed. Meyer, 2016 WL 7338739, at *8. The court of appeals "agree[d] with the district court's application of the statute, which unambiguously requires notice 'to the licensee' by the 'person who claims damages.' " Id. at *6. Although recognizing "a good deal of common-sense allure to [the Buskeys'] argument that the various sources of information available to [American Legion] sufficiently put it on notice that additional claims might arise from the October 19 collision, " the court of appeals concluded that the record was "devoid" of any evidence that American Legion itself "knew that the individual [Buskeys] were claiming to have suffered damages . . . or even that [American Legion] knew, within the statutory notice period, that [the Buskeys] existed." Id. at *7. In other words, the court of appeals treated notice of identity and notice of a possible claim as "indispensable part[s] of the actual-notice requirement." Id. In contrast, the dissent concluded that the insurer's and attorney's knowledge was relevant and that American Legion "had notice of sufficient facts" to put it on notice of the Buskeys' possible claims. Id. at *8 (Smith, J., dissenting). We granted review.

         ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment is appropriate when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact" and the moving party establishes that it is "entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03; see Senogles v. Carlson, 902 N.W.2d 38, 49 (Minn. 2017) (providing that a fact is material "when its resolution will affect the outcome of the case"). "When a trial court applies statutory language to the undisputed facts of a case, " as the district court did here, "its conclusion is one of law and does not bind this court." Wallin v. Letourneau, 534 N.W.2d 712, 715 (Minn. 1995).

         Matters of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo. Christianson v. Henke, 831 N.W.2d 532, 535 (Minn. 2013). The threshold determination is "whether the statute's language, on its face, is ambiguous." Id. at 536 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). "When the words of a law in their application to an existing situation are clear and free from all ambiguity, " Minn. Stat. ยง 645.16 (2016), then "our role is to enforce the language of the statute and not explore the spirit ...


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