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WAGNER v. SHIRD (59852)


WAGNER v. SHIRD


April 16, 1999
Record No. 981454

MELISSA ANN WAGNER

v.

KAREN DENISE SHIRD

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY
James F. D’Alton, Judge
Present: All the Justices
OPINION BY JUSTICE CYNTHIA D. KINSER


In this appeal, we address the finality of
judgments under Rule 1:1 and determine whether the circuit court
still had control over a final order at the time it modified that
order. Because the court’s 30-day suspension of its final
order expired without entry of an order to extend the length of
the stay, we conclude that the court no longer retained
jurisdiction over this action when it entered an order of
remittitur. Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment of the
circuit court and reinstate the jury’s verdict in favor of
the plaintiff.

On September 1, 1994, Melissa Ann Wagner filed
a motion for judgment against Karen Denise Shird seeking damages
for personal injuries sustained and medical expenses incurred as
a result of an automobile accident that occurred in 1993. After
hearing evidence from both parties on January 6, 1998, a jury
returned a verdict in favor of Wagner in the amount of $106,000.
That same day, the circuit court entered a final order awarding
judgment for Wagner based on the jury’s verdict.

Subsequently, in an order dated January 27,
1998, the circuit court granted Shird’s motion to stay the
final order it had previously entered. The January 27th order
specifically stated that "the Order of Final Judgment of
January 6, 1998 is stayed or suspended for a period of 30 days
for argument and decision upon [Shird’s] Motion for
Remittitur." The court heard argument on the motion for
remittitur on February 24, 1998, and at the conclusion of the
hearing, orally announced its decision from the bench. The court
granted the motion, reducing the jury’s verdict to $60,000,
but it did not enter a written order of remittitur and final
judgment until April 21, 1998.

The sole issue in this appeal is whether the
circuit court retained jurisdiction over this action at the time
it entered the April 21st order. Wagner acknowledges that the
circuit court had the authority under Rule 1:1 to modify, vacate,
or suspend its January 6th final order within 21 days after the
date of entry and that the court entered its January 27th order
within that 21-day period. However, Wagner contends that the
January 27th order did not stay the January 6th order
indefinitely but, instead, specifically limited the duration of
the stay to 30 days. According to Wagner, that 30-day period
expired on February 26, 1998, without an additional order being
entered to extend the length of the stay. Thus, posits Wagner,
the January 6th order became final on February 26th, and the
circuit court, thereafter, retained no jurisdiction to enter the
order of remittitur and final judgment on April 21st, almost
two months later.

Shird, on the other hand, argues that the
circuit court did not merely suspend the January 6th final order
for a specified period but stayed it until the court heard
argument on and decided the motion for remittitur. Thus, Shird
asserts that the circuit court continued to have jurisdiction
over the case until it entered the written order on April 21st
reflecting its oral ruling to reduce the jury’s verdict. We
do not agree.

Rule 1:1 addresses the finality of judgments
and provides the following, in pertinent part:

All final judgments, orders, and
decrees, irrespective of terms of court, shall remain
under the control of the trial court and subject to be
modified, vacated, or suspended for twenty-one days after
the date of entry, and no longer. . . .
The date of entry of any final judgment, order, or decree
shall be the date the judgment, order, or decree is
signed by the judge.

However, "[t]he running of time under
[this rule] may be interrupted . . . by the entry,
within the 21-day period after final judgment, of an order
suspending or vacating the final order." School Bd. of
City of Lynchburg v. Caudill Rowlett Scott, Inc.
, 237 Va.
550, 556, 379 S.E.2d 319, 323 (1989); accord Davis v.
Mullins
, 251 Va. 141, 148-49, 466 S.E.2d 90, 94 (1996).

In the present case, the circuit court
suspended the January 6th final order within the 21-day period
allowed in Rule 1:1 by entering the order of stay on January 27,
1998. Contrary to Shird’s position, the duration of the stay
was not tied to the court’s resolution of the motion for
remittitur. Instead, it was expressly limited to "a period
of 30 days." Since the court did not enter an additional
order within that 30-day period to continue the stay, the January
6th order became final well before April 21, 1998.
[1]

The pendency of Shird’s motion for
remittitur on the last day of the stay did not extend or toll the
running of the 30-day period. See School Bd. of City of
Lynchburg
, 237 Va. at 556, 379 S.E.2d at 323 (holding
pendency of post-judgment motion does not toll or extend running
of 21-day period prescribed in Rule 1:1). Nor does the fact that
the circuit court had orally announced its decision to grant
Shird’s motion for remittitur before the expiration of the
30-day suspension period, but had not yet entered a written order
reflecting that decision, extend the length of the stay.

"There is a distinction between the rendition
of a judgment and the entry of a judgment." McDowell
v. Dye
, 193 Va. 390, 393, 69 S.E.2d 459, 462 (1952). While
the circuit court may have rendered its judgment on Shird’s
motion for remittitur at the conclusion of the hearing on
February 24, 1998, it did not enter that judgment until April 21,
1998. At that time, the court no longer had jurisdiction over the
action because the 30-day stay of the January 6th final order had
expired and the court had not entered another order extending the
length of the stay. Thus, the April 21st order was a nullity. Davis,
251 Va. at 149, 466 S.E.2d at 94.

Nevertheless, Shird contends that Wagner
consented to an extension of the 30-day stay after the court
orally announced its decision on the motion for remittitur. While
not waiving her argument that the original order of suspension
was ineffective, Wagner did indeed agree to continue the stay for
an additional period of 30 days so that the transcript of the
hearing could be prepared.
[2] Additionally, when questioned about
the length of the stay granted in the January 27th order, the
court stated, "It did have a 30-day time limit within which
to have this hearing . . . ."

Regardless of any agreement by Wagner to extend
the length of the stay or the circuit court’s statement
about the January 27th order, a court speaks only through its
written orders. Davis, 251 Va. at 148, 466 S.E.2d at 94.
And, "‘orders speak as of the day they were
entered.’" Id. (quoting Vick v. Commonwealth,
201 Va. 474, 476, 111 S.E.2d 824, 826 (1960)). Moreover, the
parties cannot confer subject matter jurisdiction on the court by
agreement. Morrison v. Bestler, 239 Va. 166, 169-70, 387
S.E.2d 753, 755 (1990).

For these reasons, we will reverse the judgment
of the circuit court as reflected in the April 21, 1998 order,
reinstate the jury’s verdict, and enter final judgment here
in favor of Wagner.

Reversed and final judgment.

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The court also did not enter an order
to continue the stay during the 21 days after the stay ended. See
Norris v. Mitchell, 255 Va. 235, 239, 495 S.E.2d 809, 811
(1998); Rule 1:1.

[2] The circuit court wanted its rationale
for granting the motion for remittitur to be recited verbatim in
the order.

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