Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll.

Decision Date08 November 2012
Docket NumberNo. 20110147–CA.,20110147–CA.
Citation721 Utah Adv. Rep. 5,290 P.3d 314
PartiesShawnna Rae COPE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. UTAH VALLEY STATE COLLEGE, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals


Terry M. Plant and Stewart B. Harman, Salt Lake City, for Appellant.

Mark L. Shurtleff, J. Clifford Petersen, and Sandra L. Steinvoort, Salt Lake City, for Appellee.



VOROS, Judge:

¶ 1 Shawnna Rae Cope appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Utah Valley State College (UVSC).1 We affirm in part and reverse in part and remand for further proceedings.


¶ 2 In 2005, Cope was a member of the UVSC Ballroom Dance Tour Team. On September 21, 2005, Cope was injured when she fell while practicing a lift with another team member (Partner). Cope's instructor (Instructor) was supervising the team's rehearsal at the time of the injury. Before the injury occurred, Instructor stopped the rehearsal to have some couples demonstrate the lift and Instructor then worked with each couple individually on the lift. Instructor realized that Cope and Partner were doing the lift incorrectly. Partner was supposed to lift Cope from his right side over his left shoulder but had been lifting her over his right shoulder. Partner told Instructor, “I've never been able to get this lift well.” Executing the lift over the left shoulder was more difficult than executing it over the right shoulder because it required greater strength and momentum to get Cope from Partner's right side across his body and over his left shoulder. Instructor warned Cope and Partner, [E]ither you guys do this or we are going to cut [the lift from the routine].’ Cope testified in her deposition that she considered the lift “the coolest lift [they] had been doing” in the routine. When Cope and Partner attempted the lift over the left shoulder, Partner lost his footing and Cope fell, hitting her head on Partner's knee and suffering injury.

¶ 3 In her deposition, Cope testified that she had never danced with Partner before the day of her injury. However, UVSC provided the trial court with a video taken sometime during the week preceding Cope's injury in which she and Partner were recorded practicing the lift together three times, always over the incorrect shoulder.

¶ 4 According to Cope's expert, executing the lift over the left shoulder when Cope and Partner had been practicing it over the right shoulder was at least as difficult and dangerous, if not more so, than attempting an entirely new lift. 2 She explained that it was the standard in the industry for dancers to use spotters when learning new lifts. She also opined that Instructor should have used spotters on the lift to decrease the risk of injury until the students indicated that they were comfortable with the lift and Instructor determined that they were competent at performing it. Instructor believed that because Cope and Partner were capable of performing the lift over the right shoulder, no spotters were needed when they practiced the lift over the left shoulder.

¶ 5 Cope filed a complaint against UVSC on August 14, 2006. Following discovery, UVSC filed a motion for summary judgment on July 29, 2010, arguing that the alleged facts were insufficient to establish that it had a special relationship with Cope that gave rise to a duty of care. The trial court denied the motion. UVSC renewed its motion on December 20, 2010, based on the video evidence showing that Cope and Partner had practiced the lift together, albeit incorrectly, on at least one occasion prior to the date of Cope's injury. In light of this evidence, the trial court revised its earlier decision. It determined that Cope, aware of the couple's prior difficulty in performing the lift, nevertheless accepted the risk of continuing to attempt it rather than have the ‘coolest’ part of the routine” cut. The trial court concluded that because Instructor gave Cope the option of either learning the lift correctly or having it cut from the routine, Cope could have elected not to do the difficult lift without further consequence and thereby avoided her injury. Accordingly, the trial court concluded that no special relationship arose and that Instructor thus owed Cope no duty of care.


¶ 6 Cope first contends that the trial court abused its discretion by reconsidering its original denial of UVSC's motion for summary judgment. “A trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion to reconsider summary judgment is within the discretion of the trial court, and we will not disturb its ruling absent an abuse of discretion.” Timm v. Dewsnup, 921 P.2d 1381, 1386 (Utah 1996) (emphasis omitted).

¶ 7 Cope also contends that the trial court erred in granting UVSC's motion for summary judgment because a special relationship existed between Cope and Instructor. Summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Utah R. Civ. P. 56(c). We review a trial court's order granting summary judgment for correctness,” viewing “all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Mountain West Surgical Ctr., LLC v. Hospital Corp. of Utah, 2007 UT 92, ¶ 10, 173 P.3d 1276.

I. Reconsideration of Motion for Summary Judgment

¶ 8 Cope contends that the trial court erred by reconsidering its original denial of UVSC's motion for summary judgment. Cope's argument relies on rule 60(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. That rule permits a trial court to “relieve a party ... from a final judgment” based on “newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b).” SeeUtah R. Civ. P. 60(b), (b)(2). Cope reasons that the video of Cope and Partner rehearsingin the week prior to the accident, the discovery of which formed the basis for UVSC's motion to reconsider, was not evidence that “by due diligence could not have been discovered,” id., prior to the original motion for summary judgment and that the trial court therefore abused its discretion by reconsidering its earlier ruling.

¶ 9 However, the relevant rule here is not rule 60(b). Rule 60(b) governs the reconsideration of final orders, and the trial court's denial of UVSC's motion for summary judgment was not a final order. The relevant rule is rule 54(b). Rule 54(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure ... allows a court to change its position with respect to any order or decision before a final judgment has been rendered in the case.” Trembly v. Mrs. Fields Cookies, 884 P.2d 1306, 1310 n. 2 (Utah Ct.App.1994). Rule 54(b) states, “Any order ... that adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties ... is subject to revision at any time before the entry of judgment adjudicating all the claims and the rights and liabilities of all the parties.” Utah R. Civ. P. 54(b). While UVSC did present its motion to reconsider as a rule 60(b) motion based on newly discovered evidence, “the substance, not caption, of a motion is dispositive in determining the character of the motion,” see Trembly, 884 P.2d at 1310 n. 2. UVSC's motion was, in substance, simply a rule 54(b) motion to reconsider a non-final order, and thus the trial court had the prerogative to reconsider and revise its prior ruling on the motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court on this point.

II. Special Relationship

¶ 10 We next consider whether the trial court erred in determining that UVSC owed no duty of care to Cope on the ground that no special relationship existed between Cope and Instructor. “The issue of whether a duty exists is entirely a question of law to be determined by the court.” Ferree v. State, 784 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1989).

¶ 11 “Duty must be determined as a matter of law and on a categorical basis for a given class of tort claims.” B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11, ¶ 23, 275 P.3d 228. Duty determinations should be expressed in “relatively clear, categorical, bright-line rules of law applicable to a general class of cases.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). For example, Jeffs considered “the existence of a duty on the part of healthcare providers to exercise reasonable care in prescribing medications that pose a risk of injury to third parties.” Id. ¶ 22. The Utah Supreme Court held that “the duty question does not turn on the specific combination of pharmaceuticals that [the nurse practitioner] prescribed or the particular injury that it allegedly caused. Rather, the duty analysis considers healthcare providers as a class, negligent prescription of medication in general, and the full range of injuries that could result in this class of cases.” Id. ¶ 23. “Thus,” the court concluded, the nurse practitioner “would owe no duty to appellants only if there were no duty for the whole class of healthcare providers in these general circumstances.” Id. The court expressed no opinion on whether the nurse practitioner breached her duty of care, or whether any such breach proximately caused the plaintiffs' damages.

¶ 12 When governmental actors are involved, special considerations apply to a duty analysis. “As a matter of public policy, we do not expose governmental actors to tort liability for all mishaps that may befall the public in the course of conducting their duties.” Webb v. University of Utah, 2005 UT 80, ¶ 11, 125 P.3d 906. The public duty doctrine limits a governmental actor's duty to situations where a special relationship exists between the government and specific individuals:

The public duty doctrine provides that although a government entity owes a general duty to all members of the public, that duty does not impose a specific duty of due care on the government with respect to individuals who may be harmed by governmental action or...

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5 cases
  • Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll.
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • 21 Noviembre 2014
    ...special relationship exception to the public duty doctrine applied to Ms. Cope. Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll., 2012 UT App 319, ¶ 27, 290 P.3d 314. The court of appeals held that “a special relationship is created when (1) a directive is given to a student (2) by a teacher or coach (3) wi......
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    ...knowledge upon which to base their decisions" (quotations simplified) ); Cope v. Utah Valley State College , 2012 UT App 319, ¶¶ 10, 23, 290 P.3d 314 (observing that the "existence of a duty," which is a question of law, and "the appropriate standard of care are two distinct questions"), af......
  • Rossi v. Univ. of Utah
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • 12 Agosto 2021 certain circumstances. Our court of appeals established such a duty in Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll ., 2012 UT App 319, ¶¶ 17, 24, 290 P.3d 314, (holding that a college dance instructor had a "duty not to create an unreasonable risk of harm" in a circumstance in which the instructor sp......
  • State v. State
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    ...290 P.3d 312721 Utah Adv. Rep. 21STATE of Utah, in the interest OF I.G., J.C. and F.B., persons ... ...
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1 books & journal articles
  • Utah Law Developments
    • United States
    • Utah State Bar Utah Bar Journal No. 28-2, April 2015
    • Invalid date
    ...owed no duty of care to plaintiff because there was no special relationship. In Cope v. Utah Valley State College, 2012 UT App 319, 290 P.3d 314, the court of appeals reversed, finding there was a special relationship so that this exception to the public duty doctrine applied. In a signific......

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