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Ragland v. Soggin

Supreme Court of Virginia

April 14, 2016

GERALD F. RAGLAND, JR. AND ANDREW J. NAROD [*]
v.
GYOENGYVER SOGGIN, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF EVAN M. SOGGIN, DECEASED

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY. Grace Burke Carroll, Judge.

         For RAGLAND, GERALD F., JR., NAROD, ANDREW J., Appellant: WARRINGTON, DAVID ALAN, (ESQ.).

         For SOGGIN, GYOENGYVER, Appellee: VAUGHN, ROBERT LEE, JR., (ESQ.).

         PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, and Kelsey, JJ., and Russell, S.J.

          OPINION

         DONALD W. LEMONS, J.

         In this appeal, we consider whether the trial court erred in sanctioning two attorneys in the amount of $200 each for submitting a jury instruction with an error despite the trial court's finding that the mistake was inadvertent.

         I. Facts and Proceedings

         Attorneys Gerald F. Ragland, Jr. (" Ragland" ) and Andrew J. Narod (" Narod" ) (collectively " defense counsel" ) were sanctioned $200 each during the course of their representation of Keri Saporito (" Saporito" ), who was the defendant in a wrongful death suit in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County (" trial court" ). Gyoengyver G. Soggin (" Soggin" ), in her capacity as administrator of the estate of her deceased son, Evan M. Soggin (" Evan" ), filed a wrongful death complaint against Saporito, alleging that Saporito was Evan's riding instructor, and that she was negligent in providing training and instruction to Evan and in failing to select an appropriate horse for Evan to ride. The complaint asserted that Evan sustained severe injuries as a result of that negligence, and died as a result of those injuries.

         The case proceeded to trial. Saporito maintained that Virginia's equine activity liability statutes, specifically Code § 3.2-6202, provided immunity from liability for injury or death caused by any of the intrinsic dangers listed in Code § 3.2-6200. Saporito asserted that Code § 3.2-6203 provided only a limited exception to such immunity, and therefore any actionable negligence must be the " sole cause" of the injury or death in order to impose liability. Defense counsel originally drafted jury instructions 32 (the " issues" instruction) and 34 (the " findings" instruction) in accordance with that theory of their case, substituting the phrase " sole cause" for the phrase " a proximate cause." During trial, however, the court rejected defendant's theory. Accordingly, defense counsel revised the issues instruction to reflect the trial court's ruling, but apparently neglected to revise the findings instruction.

         The record demonstrates that the instructions were revised during a brief recess. Although plaintiff's counsel and the court had an opportunity to review the findings instruction before the instructions were read to the jury, no one noticed that it still contained the phrase " sole cause."

         The trial judge then read the jury instructions to the jury. The findings instruction provided:

You shall find your verdict for the plaintiff if she has proved by the greater weight of the evidence that:
(1) There was a contract in which Keri Saporito agreed to find a proper horse, and/or train the horse, and/or provide riding lessons to Evan Soggin; and that
(2) The defendant was negligent in performing her agreed upon duty; and that
(3) The defendant's negligence was a sole cause of Evan Soggin's death.
You shall find your verdict for the defendant if she has proved by the greater weight of the evidence that:
(1) The plaintiff has failed to prove either of the three elements above; or
(2) You find by the greater weight of the evidence that Gyongyver Soggin or Steven Soggin assumed the risk of a known danger on Evan Soggin's behalf.

(emphasis added). Neither plaintiff's counsel nor the trial court appears to have noticed this language while the instruction was read aloud. However, before the written instructions were delivered to the jury, counsel reviewed the instructions and plaintiff's counsel caught the error. The parties used correction fluid to cover up the word " sole" and the phrase " a proximate cause" was ...


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