Carrier v. Lake Pend Oreille School Dist.

Decision Date24 April 2006
Docket NumberNo. 31812.,31812.
Citation142 Idaho 804,134 P.3d 655
CourtIdaho Supreme Court
PartiesRussell L. CARRIER and Claudia Jo Carrier, husband and wife, and natural parents, guardians and heirs of Brian Leslie Carrier, deceased, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. LAKE PEND OREILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT #84, and their Board of Trustees; West Bonner County School District #83, and their Board of Trustees; Michael McNulty, individually, and as an employee of Lake Pend Oreille School District #84 and/or West Bonner County School District #83, Defendants-Appellants.

Anderson, Julian & Hull, Boise, for appellants. Brian K. Julian argued.

Beck & Poorman, LLC., Hayden Lake, for respondents. Lawrence R. Beck argued.

BURDICK, Justice.

This case asks the Court to determine, as a matter of first impression, the definition of "suicidal tendencies" found in Idaho Code § 33-512B.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Brian Carrier (Brian) attended Sandpoint High School as a junior during the 1999-2000 school year. He was a student in Michael McNulty's (McNulty) English class. As part of an assignment on Hamlet, Brian completed a written journal entry in April, 2000. He titled his entry "My Most Difficult Decision." Brian wrote:

I believe my most difficult decision of all time was not to kill myself. For a long time and a lot of reasons I was contemplating suicide. I thought it would just solve all my problems. And it would. But that means that I would not be around anymore and I couldn't enjoy all the things in life that everyone else seemed to. One time I actually tried to shoot myself but I started shaking so bad and I got so scared that I just couldn't do it. I'm sure that every human being on the planet at one time in their lives has thought about killing themselves. I seemed to have these thoughts a lot during my early teen years. I often listened to a song by the band Queen named Bohemian Rapsody [sic]. One particular lyric in the song stated: "Goodbye everybody. I've got to go. Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth. I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all." This particular part of the song really appealed to me. But now I've turned my life around. Those little things that used to bother me so much, now don't even bother me anymore. I believe that I used to be so depressed all the time partly because my brother and dad used to fight, scream, and hit each other all the time. Today is the day my brother is leaving, I'm very happy that he's gone but a part of me is still wanting him to stay. I'm glad that he's gone because now he can't cause anymore problems with my dad. I can now enjoy life and all its little pleasures without any guilt.

Sometime the following month, McNulty read this journal entry and returned it to Brian. He wrote on the essay: "I'm glad to see you found a new perspective on your problem—Class & life would be a different place without you. Be sure to talk to someone (me) if these ideas return!" However, at that time McNulty did not tell Brian's parents or school officials about the contents of the essay.

The Carrier family then moved to Coleville, Washington. Brian began his senior year of high school there. On November 5 2000, Brian did not show up for his first day of work at a new job. When his mother discovered this, she contacted the police to report her son missing. She informed the police that she had found a note on his window sill stating simply, "I'm sorry," but that she had no reason to suspect that Brian was depressed or suicidal. Later, she discovered that his calendar had the word "Goodbye" written on November 5 and that the family was missing a .308 rifle. A week later, Brian's body was discovered in Boundary County, Idaho. Brian had committed suicide.

Brian's parents, Russell and Claudia Carrier (the Carriers), then filed suit against McNulty and Lake Pend Oreille School District No. 84 and West Bonner County School District No. 83 (the school district).1 The Carriers alleged that McNulty and the school district failed to comply with their statutory duties contained in Idaho Code §§ 33-512(4) and 33-512B. McNulty and the school district (collectively the Appellants) then moved for summary judgment. The district court granted this motion in part and denied it in part. However, recognizing "the central issues presented in this case involve questions of first impression, controlling questions of law as to which there are substantial grounds for difference of opinion, and that an immediate appeal . . . may materially advance the orderly resolution of this litigation" the district court granted the Appellants' motion for a Rule 12 certification for interlocutory appeal of its denial of the motion for summary judgment.

II. ISSUES ON APPEAL

1. Whether the meaning of "suicidal tendencies" in Idaho Code § 33-512B is ambiguous.

2. Whether Brian's essay contained sufficient direct evidence of his suicidal tendencies to trigger the duty to warn under I.C. § 33-512B?

3. Whether I.C. § 6-904A(2) of the Idaho Tort Claims Act provide the school district and McNulty with immunity for their breach of the limited duty to warn set forth in Idaho Code § 33-512B?

4. Whether there is a genuine issue of material fact as to causation?

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, this Court uses the same standard employed by the trial court when deciding such a motion. Kolln v. Saint Luke's Regl. Med. Ctr., 130 Idaho 323, 327, 940 P.2d 1142, 1146 (1997). "[I]f the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law" summary judgment is proper. I.R.C.P. 56(c). The burden is on the moving party to prove an absence of genuine issues of material fact. Evans v. Griswold, 129 Idaho 902, 905, 935 P.2d 165, 168 (1997). In addition, this Court views the facts and inferences in the record in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

When reviewing a motion for summary judgment against a governmental entity and its employees under the Idaho Tort Claims Act (ITCA), this Court must engage in a three step analysis. Coonse ex rel. Coonse v. Boise Sch. Dist., 132 Idaho 803, 805, 979 P.2d 1161, 1163 (1999); Harris v. State Dept. of Health & Welfare, 123 Idaho 295, 298 n. 1, 847 P.2d 1156, 1159 n. 1 (1992); Olguin v. City of Burley, 119 Idaho 721, 723, 810 P.2d 255, 257 (1991); Czaplicki v. Gooding Joint Sch. Dist., 116 Idaho 326, 330, 775 P.2d 640, 644 (1989). First, we must determine whether "tort recovery is allowed under the laws of Idaho." Harris, 123 Idaho at 298 n. 1, 847 P.2d at 1159 n. 1. This is essentially a determination of whether there is such a tort under Idaho Law. Czaplicki, 116 Idaho at 330, 775 P.2d at 644. Second, this Court determines if "an exception to liability under the ITCA shields the alleged misconduct from liability." Coonse, 132 Idaho at 803, 979 P.2d at 1163. Finally, "if no exception applies, [we examine] whether the merits of the claim as presented for consideration on the motion for summary judgment entitle the moving party to dismissal." Id.

The interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review. Martin v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 138 Idaho 244, 246, 61 P.3d 601, 603 (2002).

IV. ANALYSIS

A. Duty to warn under I.C. § 33-512B

1. Meaning of "suicidal tendencies"

The parties agree that I.C. § 33-512B creates a duty to warn. They disagree, however, on the exact contours of that duty. The Appellants argue the term "suicidal tendencies" is ambiguous, so this Court must look beyond the words of the statute to determine the exact meaning. They contended the term should be construed narrowly to comport with the legislature's intent and also because a broader interpretation, such as that given by the district court, makes the statute too difficult for teachers and administrators to apply in practice. Therefore, they continue, since the duty to warn is a narrow, limited duty, Brian's essay did not trigger the duty because it would lead a reasonable teacher to speculate as to his present intentions regarding taking his own life. The Carriers, on the other hand, contend that the statute is unambiguous. "Suicidal tendencies," they argue, must include a pattern of conduct, so the duty to warn is triggered anytime suicidal ideation is brought to a teacher's attention. Therefore, they continue, as a matter of law Brian's essay triggered McNulty's duty to warn.

Idaho Code § 33-512B provides:

Suicidal tendencies—Duty to warn

(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 33-512(4), Idaho Code, neither a teacher nor a school district shall have a duty to warn of the suicidal tendencies of a student absent the teacher's knowledge of direct evidence of such suicidal tendencies.

(2) "Direct evidence" means evidence which directly proves a fact without inference and which in itself, if true, conclusively establishes that fact. Direct evidence would include unequivocal and unambiguous oral or written statements by a student which would not cause a reasonable teacher to speculate regarding the existence of the fact in question; it would not include equivocal or ambiguous oral or written statements by a student which would cause a reasonable teacher to speculate regarding the existence of the fact in question.

(3) The existence of the teacher's knowledge of the direct evidence referred to in subsections (1) and (2) of this section shall be determined by the court as a matter of law.

I.C. § 33-512B. The interpretation of I.C. § 33-512B is a matter of first impression for this Court.

This Court must construe a statute to give effect to the intent of the legislature. Ada County Bd. of Equalization v. Highlands, Inc., 141 Idaho 202, 208, 108 P.3d 349, 355 (2005). When construing a statute, this Court "will not deal in any subtle refinements of the...

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