In Suojanen v. Tardif, 121 N.H. 1036, 437 A.2d 310 (1981), we recently held that a trial judge who acts impartially has inherent authority to elicit information at trial.Summary of this case from Walker v. Town of Goffstown
Decided November 20, 1981
1. Appeal and Error — Findings — Master's Findings A master's findings and rulings will be upheld unless they are unsupported by the evidence or erroneous as a matter of law.
2. Appeal and Error — Findings — Master's Findings The supreme court will not substitute its judgment for a master's judgment.
3. Contracts — Quantum Meruit Where record contained testimony that oral agreement between decedent and housekeeper, who provided room and board and nursing services for decedent, was intended to cover only payment for cost of room and board and that decedent promised to provide additional funds and also contained evidence that housekeeper performed substantial nursing services, master could reasonably have found that no agreement existed regarding nursing services, and granting of damages in quantum meruit for the services, based upon the finding, did not constitute error.
4. Contracts — Quantum Meruit Master did not commit error in not deducting, from award of damages in quantum meruit for nursing services performed by housekeeper for decedent, a gift, a bequest and payments for room and board made by decedent where there was no clear proof that the decedent intended the payments as compensation for the nursing services.
5. Appeal and Error — Affirmance — Grounds Where, assuming arguendo, close relationship between decedent and housekeeper who provided decedent with room and board and nursing services created presumption that nursing services were rendered gratuitously, evidence in record that decedent indicated that he would compensate housekeeper supported master's ruling that presumption was rebutted, even though master's reasoning that the enormity of the nursing services and the absence of a closer relationship between the parties rebutted the presumption may have been incorrect.
6. Appeal and Error — Affirmance — Grounds Supreme court would not reverse ruling of master which was based on suspect rationale but supported by record, since a wrong reason given by a court does not invalidate a correct ruling.
7. Damages — Burden of Proof — Generally In action for compensation for services rendered, master did not wrongfully usurp plaintiff's burden of proving damages when he asked plaintiff how much she expected to receive for her services; plaintiff clearly had duty to prove her damages by a preponderance of the evidence, and the proof could come in the form of an answer to the master's question.
8. Judges — Powers and Duties — Questioning Witnesses A trial judge or master has inherent power to elicit information from witnesses, as long as the questioning is performed in an impartial manner.
9. Judges — Powers and Duties — Questioning Witnesses Where master's objective, in questioning plaintiff in action for compensation for services rendered regarding her damages, was to clarify the issue in the interests of justice, there was no indication that the master was motivated by bias, and the questioning occurred before plaintiff had rested her case, so that she would still have had an opportunity to present evidence of her damages if master had not intervened, the master's questioning as to damages did not constitute reversible error.
10. Damages — Fair Market Value The ascertainment of the fair market value of services lies primarily in the domain of fact and its solution must to a large extent be left to the good sense, practical wisdom and sound judgment of the trier of fact.
11. Damages — Fair Market Value In action for compensation for rendition of nursing services, master did not abuse discretion in basing award of damages solely upon plaintiff's testimony regarding the estimated value of her services and his own practical knowledge of the cost of nursing services.
Branch Greenhalge P.A., of Concord (Robert D. Branch on the brief and orally), for the plaintiff.
Stanley, Tardif Shapiro, of Concord (R. Peter Shapiro on the brief and orally), for the defendant.
This appeal arises from a Master's (Frank B. Clancy, Esq.) report, approved by the Superior Court (DiClerico, J.), which awarded $24,900 damages in quantum meruit to the plaintiff, for services rendered to the decedent, Lorenzo P. Diversi. The defendant, the administrator of the Diversi estate, challenges the validity and amount of the award, and also claims that the master committed reversible error when he questioned the plaintiff at trial regarding the extent of her damages. We find the defendant's arguments unpersuasive and therefore affirm.
The decedent became a patient at a nursing home after suffering a stroke in 1972. In April 1973, he asked the plaintiff, a close friend for many years, if she would care for him at her home in Concord. When she agreed, the decedent moved into her home on April 19, 1973, and he remained there until shortly before his death on July 23, 1978.
During this period, the plaintiff, a retired housekeeper living on social security, performed numerous household chores for the decedent, including cooking, washing, shopping, banking and bookkeeping. She also provided extensive nursing care for the decedent, who suffered from partial paralysis and could not dress himself. Following the development of additional medical problems resulting in amputation of the decedent's leg in 1974, the plaintiff regularly helped Mr. Diversi in and out of his wheelchair, and assisted him with therapy and exercising.
While residing with the plaintiff, the decedent initially paid her $100 per month, but subsequently increased this amount to $150 per month when the plaintiff informed him of escalating grocery prices. In addition, the decedent gave the plaintiff $4,000 so that she could buy out her sister's interest in her house. Upon his death in 1978, Mr. Diversi left the plaintiff a legacy of $5,000.
Despite these payments, the plaintiff, following the decedent's death, sought to obtain full compensation for the nursing services which she had provided him. When the decedent's estate refused to compensate her for these services, she brought suit in superior court. The Superior Court (Contas, J.) adopted a Master's (Roger G. Burlingame, Esq.) finding that no genuine issues of material fact or law existed and granted summary judgment for the defendant. In Suojanen v. Tardif, 120 N.H. 574, 419 A.2d 1088 (1980), however, we set aside the lower court ruling and remanded for a hearing on the merits. Id. at 576, 419 A.2d at 1090.
The case was again heard by a Master (Frank B. Clancy, Esq.), who ruled that no contract regarding nursing services existed, and that the plaintiff was entitled to a $24,900 verdict based on quantum meruit. The Superior Court (DiClerico, J.) approved the master's recommendation and the defendant brought this appeal.
[1, 2] The defendant alleges that the decedent's agreement to pay the plaintiff $100 (later $150) per month included compensation for her nursing services, and that the master erred in awarding damages in quantum meruit for these same services. We have stated that a master's "findings and rulings will be upheld unless they are unsupported by the evidence or are erroneous as a matter of law." Summit Electric, Inc. v. Pepin Bros. Constr., Inc., 121 N.H. 203, 206, 427 A.2d 505, 507 (1981); Hynes v. Whitehouse, 120 N.H. 417, 421, 415 A.2d 876, 878 (1980). We will not substitute our judgment for the master's judgment. See Merchants Nat'l Bank v. Town of Exeter, 120 N.H. 157, 160, 412 A.2d 1016, 1017 (1980).
The record in this case contains sufficient evidence to support the master's finding that the parties' oral agreement did not include nursing services. The plaintiff testified that the agreement was intended to cover only room and board, and that the decedent promised to provide her with additional funds. The record reveals that the plaintiff performed substantial nursing services; a rational trier of fact would certainly have concluded that the value of these services far exceeded the $100 monthly payments. Based on these facts and the absence of contrary evidence, we hold that the master could reasonably have found that no agreement existed regarding nursing services. The granting of damages in quantum meruit for these services, therefore, did not constitute error.
We also reject the defendant's contention that the master should have deducted the $4,000 gift, the $5,000 bequest and the room and board payments, from the amount which he awarded the plaintiff. The defendant failed to prove that the decedent intended these payments as compensation for the plaintiff's nursing services. In view of the absence of clear proof linking these payments to the plaintiff's nursing services, the master could properly determine the amount of the award without considering these other transactions.
The defendant argues, in the alternative, that the parties' close relationship created a presumption that the nursing services were rendered gratuitously. The defendant claims that the master erred when he ruled that "the enormity of the nursing services" and "the absence of a closer relationship" rebutted this presumption.
[5, 6] Assuming arguendo that the presumption of gratuitousness existed in this case, we again find that the record contains ample evidence supporting the master's ruling that the presumption was rebutted. The record indicates that the decedent told the plaintiff that "I expect to pay you" and that "you will be well taken care of and well compensated." Although the master's rationale for dismissing the presumption may have been suspect, his conclusion was obviously correct. We find no reversible error in the master's ruling because "[i]t is well settled . . . that `a wrong reason given by a court does not invalidate a correct ruling.'" Sprague v. Town of Acworth, 120 N.H. 641, 643, 419 A.2d 1075, 1076 (1980) (quoting H. P. Hood Sons, Inc. v. Boucher, 98 N.H. 399, 404, 101 A.2d 466, 469-70 (1953)); see Burns v. Bradley, 120 N.H. 542, 546-47, 419 A.2d 1069, 1072 (1980).
We also dismiss the defendant's argument that the master wrongfully usurped the plaintiff's burden of proving damages, when he asked her how much she expected to receive for her services. The plaintiff clearly had a duty to prove her damages by a preponderance of the evidence. See Grant v. Town of Newton, 117 N.H. 159, 162, 370 A.2d 285, 287 (1977). We hold, however, that the plaintiff's "proof" could come in the form of an answer to a master's question.
[8, 9] The universal rule is that a trial judge or master has inherent power to elicit information from witnesses, as long as the questioning is performed in an impartial manner. See In re Ronnie Prime, 120 N.H. 849, 850, 424 A.2d 804, 805 (1980); McCartney v. Commission on Judicial Qualifications, 12 Cal.3d 512, 533, 526 P.2d 268, 283, 116 Cal.Rptr. 260, 275 (1974). We find that the master's objective in questioning the plaintiff regarding damages was to clarify this issue in the interests of justice; there is no indication that he was motivated by bias. Furthermore, the master's questioning occurred before the plaintiff had rested her case, and she would still have had an opportunity to present evidence of her damages if the master had not intervened. The master's questioning in this case thus did not constitute reversible error.
[10, 11] Finally, we hold that the plaintiff's testimony regarding the estimated value of her services constituted a sufficient basis for the master's award of damages. The ascertainment of the fair market value of services "lies primarily in the domain of fact and its solution must to a large extent be left to the good sense, practical wisdom and sound judgment of the trier of fact." Lemire v. Haley, 93 N.H. 206, 208, 39 A.2d 10, 12 (1944) (quoting Downey v. Union Trust Co., 312 Mass. 405, 417, 45 N.E.2d 373, 380 (1942)). We conclude that the master did not abuse his discretion in basing his award of damages solely upon the plaintiff's testimony and his own practical knowledge of the cost of nursing services. Cf. 3 WIGMORE, EVIDENCE 715, at 53 (Chadbourn rev. 1970).