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A RUNDOWN OF THE RHODE ISLAND SUPREME COURT’S RECENTLY COMPLETED 2021-2022 TERM

- APPEAL CASES THAT PREVAILED

- CHARACTERIZATION OF DISPUTES

- CASES OF LEGAL SIGNIFICANCE


A RUNDOWN OF THE RHODE ISLAND SUPREME COURT’S RECENTLY COMPLETED 2021-2022 TERM

In the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s 2021-2022 Term (running from October 2021 through July 2022), the State’s highest court issued 87 published decisions, making a determination in 83 of them (in four cases, the Court rendered no determination).

Nine of the 87 decisions were rendered as unsigned “Orders,” the remaining 78 decisions being signed opinions by one of the Court’s five justices (15 by Justice Robinson, 15 by Justice Lynch-Prata, 16 by Justice Goldberg, 15 by Justice Long, and 17 by Chief Justice Suttell).

78 of the Court’s 87 published decisions were before the court on as-of-right appeal, 9 pursuant to the Court’s discretionary (certiorari) review.

Of the 83 cases in which the court made some determination of the matter before it, it decided the case in favor of one party/parties or the other(s) in all but one case (in which the court answered a question certified to it by a federal court).

74 of those 83 cases were decided unanimously (though, in two of those decisions, a member of the court reasoned differently than the majority), nine over the dissent of one or more justices, with Justice Robinson dissenting in the majority (5) of the 9 dissents.

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APPEAL CASES THAT PREVAILED

Of those 82 adversarial cases, the court decided in favor of the appealing/petitioning party in 17 cases, or approximately 21 percent, such that the winning party in the trial court below (the defending party on appeal) prevailed in 65, or approximately 79 percent, of the cases. This might indicate that a party bringing an appeal in the Rhode Island Supreme Court has about a one in five chance of prevailing.

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CHARACTERIZATION OF DISPUTES

Dissecting the nature of the controversies that underlie the Court’s 87 published decisions (and recognizing, of course, that some cases may be characterized in a number of different ways):

  • 21 involved criminal/criminal-related matters
  • 10 involved disputes between municipal/state employees and their governmental employers
  • 10 involved family court matters
  • 8 involved property disputes
  • 9 involved personal injury matters
  • 5 involved land use/zoning disputes
  • 5 involved claims made by an insured against their insurers
  • 4 involved will/probate matters
  • 3 involved tax disputes
  • 3 involved disputes between businesses
  • 2 involved disputes arising from a claim of unlawful discrimination
  • 7 involved an assortment of other discrete disputes

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CASES OF LEGAL SIGNIFICANCE

Six decisions, because of their legal significance, warrant specific mention:

  1. In Smile of the Child v. Est. of Papadopouli, 272 A.3d 99 (R.I. 2022), a case originating out of the Middletown Probate Court, the Court had to decide a true conflict between Greek law, prohibiting the use of estate assets for purpose of financing a challenge to a will, and Rhode Island law, allowing award of costs and attorney fees to be paid out of the estate.

  2. In Phillips v. Enter. Rent-A-Car Co. of Rhode Island, LLC, 273 A.3d 609, 615 (R.I. 2022), the Court had to apply the “going and coming rule” – which operates “to deny compensation when injury occurs while the employee is traveling to or from the workplace” – to a tragic case in which an employee had died in a fatal motor vehicle accident while crossing the street from the employer’s facility to a leased employee parking lot.

  3. In Ho-Rath v. Corning Inc., 275 A.3d 100, 108 (R.I. 2022), the Court determined, in an issue of Rhode Island first impression, that “there is no duty owed to a child born with physical defects who alleges that, because of negligence, his or her parents either (1) decided to conceive the child in ignorance of the risk of impairment, or (2) were deprived of information that would have caused them to terminate the pregnancy.”

  4. In Martins v. Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC, 266 A.3d 753 (R.I. 2022), a case in which the driver’s estate brought a wrongful death action against manufacturers and designers of allegedly defective tires on a rotator truck that the driver was operating, the Court made significant legal pronouncements relative to the types of contacts between a nonresident defendant and the forum state which can support the exercise of personal jurisdiction.

  5. In Zab v. Rhode Island Dep't of Corr., 269 A.3d 741 (R.I. 2022), the Court, over the dissent of Justice Goldberg, determined, as a matter of first impression, that the State’s civil death statute – treating inmates imprisoned for life as dead with respect to all civil rights – violated the State’s constitutional right of access to court.

  6. In Johnston Equities Assocs., LP v. Town of Johnston, No. 2020-150-APPEAL., 2022 WL 2378319 (R.I. July 1, 2022), the Court made important contributions to “public duty doctrine law,” in determining that, for purposes of the statutory cap on damages in a tort action against a municipality, the design and construction of a municipal sewer system is a “governmental function,” as opposed to the actions and maintenance that come after the sewer is completed, including the operation of a sewer system, which are “proprietary functions.”

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