Beiser v. Parkway School Dist., 61186

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Missouri
Citation589 S.W.2d 277
Docket NumberNo. 61186,61186
PartiesPhilip BEISER, by Charles Beiser, His Next Friend, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. PARKWAY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant-Respondent.
Decision Date14 November 1979

Robert C. Ely, Ely & Wieland, St. Louis, for plaintiff-appellant.

W. Munro Roberts, Jr., St. Louis, for defendant-respondent.

SEILER, Judge.

This is an appeal in a personal injury case from a judgment of the Circuit Court of St. Louis sustaining defendant school district's motion to dismiss on the ground of the doctrine of sovereign immunity. This case was transferred here by the court of appeals under Rule 83.02 for resolution of an apparent conflict in the decisions of the Court concerning the meaning to be given the term "municipality." We will treat this case as if here on original appeal. Mo.Const. art. V, § 10.

Appellant was a student at Parkway South Junior High School on May 28, 1976, the date the alleged injury occurred. 1 While he was attending an industrial art class, a fellow student attempted to insert a drill bit into a drill press. The drill bit flew from the drill press and struck appellant in his right eye, resulting in loss of the eye. Appellant filed suit against respondent school district, alleging that his injuries were a result of respondent's negligence.

Appellant asserts that the school district is a "municipality" for the purpose of § 71.185, RSMo 1978. Accordingly, appellant contends that respondent is liable under the statute to the extent of its insurance coverage. 2 The sole question on appeal, then, is whether a school district is a municipality for the purposes of § 71.185, which establishes a limited exception to the doctrine of sovereign immunity as it applies to municipalities. 3

Appellant cites as authority in this case dicta from two cases which broadly define the term "municipal corporation" for the purpose of exempting the properties of certain political subdivisions from taxation. In State ex rel. Caldwell v. Little River Drainage District, 291 Mo. 72, 236 S.W. 15 (1921), the Court stated that there is a presumption that the state does not intend to tax political subdivisions and therefore a political subdivision must be considered "a municipal corporation within the meaning of the term As used in the provision of the Constitution dealing with tax exemptions . . . " 236 S.W. at 17 (emphasis added). Appellant relies upon the dicta in Caldwell that the term "municipal corporation" is applied to political subdivisions exercising functions of government and "hence includes counties, school districts, townships . . . special road districts and drainage districts." Id. at 16. But in Caldwell it is clear that the Court includes school districts within the term solely for the purpose of finding them to be exempt from taxation: "It is plain that if the property not only of school districts, but of organized townships and special road districts as well, are expressly exempted from taxation by the Constitution, it is because they are 'other municipal corporations.' " Id.

Appellant also cites Larat Investment Co. v. Dickman, 345 Mo. 449, 134 S.W.2d 65 (banc 1939), a case which considered whether the Housing Authority of the City of St. Louis was exempt from state taxation as a "municipal corporation." Larat Investment cites language from the Caldwell decision and the fact that the General Assembly expressly declared the housing authority to be a "municipal corporation", holding that the housing authority, like the drainage district in Caldwell, was entitled to a tax exemption. These cases, and dicta in subsequent cases that cite them, St. Louis Housing Authority v. City of St. Louis, 361 Mo. 1170, 239 S.W.2d 289 (banc 1951) (holding that the housing authority, as a municipal corporation, had constitutional and statutory authority to enter into a cooperation agreement); State ex rel. Crites v. West, 509 S.W.2d 482 (Mo.App.1974) (holding that a fire district can be dissolved only as provided by statute), are not persuasive authority for the contention that school districts are "municipalities" for the purposes of § 71.185, RSMo 1978.

In City of Olivette v. Graeler, 338 S.W.2d 827, 835 (Mo.1969), the Court considered the meaning of the term "municipal corporation" for the purpose of the Sawyer Act and held that the municipal services performed by a county do not "make the legal status of a charter county equivalent to that of an incorporated city." 338 S.W.2d at 836. The Court noted the cases applying a strict reading of the term "municipal corporation" to include only "cities, towns and villages, having subordinate and local powers of legislation" (Heller v. Stremmel, 52 Mo. 309 (1873)), and the larger scope urged by appellant that includes "any public local corporation, exercising some function of government and includes counties (and) school districts . . . " (Caldwell, supra at 16). But the Court observed that "(t)he same word, term or phrase may vary in meaning depending on the time, place and circumstances under which it is used." 338 S.W.2d at 835.

Here the statute in question does not even use the term " municipal corporation" which, as discussed above, has been used in a variety of contexts with a varying scope. Rather, § 71.185 uses the term "municipality." While a municipality may be a municipal corporation in either construction of the term, not all municipal corporations are municipalities. See City of Olivette, supra. Even assuming that a school district may be a municipal corporation for certain limited purposes, it does not follow that a school district is, therefore, a "municipality" for the purposes of the statute in question.

In State ex rel. Conservation Commission v. Le Page, 566 S.W.2d 208, 212 (Mo. banc 1978), we stated the general rule in construing the language of statutes: "Words used in statutes are to be considered in their plain and ordinary meaning to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers." Under this rule, the plain and ordinary meaning of the term "municipality" does not indicate an intent of the legislature to include school districts within the meaning of § 71.185. The legislature could have used the more inclusive term " public entity" if that were the scope intended; indeed, in the recent sovereign immunity statute the legislature used the term "public entity." § 537.600, RSMo 1978.

We recently stated the rule of construction that statutory provisions that waive sovereign immunity are construed strictly. Charles v. Spradling, 524 S.W.2d 820 (Mo. banc 1975). Section 71.185 undoubtedly waives the sovereign immunity of a municipality for torts committed while exercising a governmental function if and to the extent the municipality carries liability insurance. In applying a strict construction to the statutory provision, we find that a school district is not a "municipality" for the purposes of § 71.185.

As we note in St. Joseph Light & Power Company v. Kaw Valley Tunneling, Inc. et al., 589 S.W.2d 260 (Mo. banc 1979), a municipality can perform both proprietary and governmental functions and loses sovereign immunity when performing proprietary functions. A special government district, on the other hand, is an arm of the state, and can by its nature perform only governmental functions for which it will enjoy sovereign immunity. Id.; Page v. Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, 377 S.W.2d 348 (Mo.1964). In Rennie v. Belleview School District, 521 S.W.2d 423 (Mo. banc 1975), the Court discarded a plaintiff's contention that a school district was not protected by sovereign immunity because it performed an allegedly proprietary function of maintaining a playground. "It would serve no useful purpose in this case, involving a school district And not a municipality, to enter the maze of the 'governmental-proprietary' dichotomy." 521 S.W.2d at 424 (emphasis added). Clearly, a municipality's particular liability for torts was not lost upon the legislature when it used the term "municipality" in its limited exception to the doctrine of...

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