Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, No. 20060359.

CourtUtah Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtDurrant
Citation169 P.3d 441,2007 UT 77
Decision Date21 September 2007
Docket NumberNo. 20060359.
PartiesAimee L. ELLIS, Plaintiff, Appellant, and Cross-Appellee, v. The ESTATE OF Steven Wade ELLIS, Defendant, Appellee, and Cross-Appellant.
169 P.3d 441
2007 UT 77
Aimee L. ELLIS, Plaintiff, Appellant, and Cross-Appellee,
v.
The ESTATE OF Steven Wade ELLIS, Defendant, Appellee, and Cross-Appellant.
No. 20060359.
Supreme Court of Utah.
September 21, 2007.

[169 P.3d 442]

Kelly H. Macfarlane, Karra J. Porter, Salt Lake City, for plaintiff.

Stephen G. Morgan, Paul C. Farr, Salt Lake City, for defendant.

DURRANT, Justice:


INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 Aimee Ellis sued her husband Steven Ellis's estate (the "Estate") for personal injuries she suffered in a car accident as a result of his negligence. We are presented with two issues on appeal: first, whether the district court erred in ruling that Mrs. Ellis's negligence claim against her husband's estate is barred by the common-law doctrine of interspousal immunity and, second, whether the district court erred in ruling that lay affidavits established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mrs. Ellis was mentally incompetent such that the statute of limitations under Utah Code section 78-12-36 was tolled. We reverse the district court's decision as to the first issue, but affirm its decision as to the second.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 On January 2, 2001, newlyweds Steven and Aimee Ellis were driving in an automobile that was owned by Mrs. Ellis's parents. Mr. Ellis was driving the car on a honeymoon snowmobiling trip with the permission of its owners. While traveling near Shelley, Idaho, Mr. Ellis lost control of the vehicle, crossed the center median into oncoming traffic, and collided with a two-ton Mitsubishi truck. Mr. Ellis died in the accident. For the purpose of this appeal, the Estate does not contest that the accident was caused by his negligence.

¶ 3 Mrs. Ellis was hospitalized for weeks with serious injuries suffered in the accident, including a severe head injury, numerous broken bones, internal injuries, and emotional trauma. She filed a personal injury action against her husband's estate on January 27, 2005. Because her claim was brought more than a year after Mr. Ellis's death, the Estate's liability was limited to the extent of the decedent's insurance coverage.1

¶ 4 The Estate filed a motion to dismiss on two separate grounds. The Estate first argued that Mrs. Ellis's claim was barred by the doctrine of interspousal immunity. The district court granted the Estate's motion on this ground, holding that interspousal immunity is abrogated in Utah only with respect to intentional torts. Mrs. Ellis now appeals this decision.

¶ 5 The district court denied the Estate's motion with respect to the Estate's second argument that the statute of limitations had run on Mrs. Ellis's negligence claim. Mrs. Ellis argued that she was "mentally incompetent" for a time sufficient to toll the four-year statute of limitations period pursuant to Utah Code section 78-12-36.2 In support of her position, Mrs. Ellis filed her own affidavit and those of three family members, which set forth observations that she was mentally incompetent for a period of at least twenty-five days after the accident. The district court determined that these lay affidavits were sufficient to establish a genuine issue of material fact and send the matter to a jury. The Estate now cross-appeals this decision. We have jurisdiction pursuant to Utah Code section 78-2-2(3)(j).

169 P.3d 443
STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 6 The district court granted a motion to dismiss, which presents a question of law that we review for correctness.3 Moreover, the district court's interpretation of prior precedent, statutes, and the common law are questions of law that we review for correctness.4

ANALYSIS

¶ 7 We are presented with two issues on appeal: first, whether the common-law doctrine of interspousal immunity applies to negligence claims and, second, whether lay affidavits sufficiently establish a genuine issue of material fact as to mental incompetency such that the statute of limitations under Utah Code section 78-12-365 was tolled.

¶ 8 We hold that interspousal immunity has been abrogated in Utah with respect to all claims. In Stoker v. Stoker,6 we explicitly held that the Legislature had abrogated interspousal immunity by enacting the Married Women's Act. Furthermore, we hold that Mrs. Ellis established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she was mentally incompetent such that the statute of limitations under Utah Code section 78-12-36 was tolled. We now discuss both issues in turn.

I. INTERSPOUSAL IMMUNITY

¶ 9 Our cases regarding the common-law doctrine of interspousal immunity have traveled a tortuous path. As one sister court noted, "Between 1954 and 1980, the Utah Supreme Court twice reversed its interpretation of the governing statutes on the subject, each time by a divided court; and since 1980 the court has three times avoided deciding how its previous cases should be read."7 While our pre-1980 precedent was contradictory and confusing, in that year we clearly held in Stoker that interspousal immunity has been abrogated in Utah by the Married Women's Act.

¶ 10 We will first discuss our prior cases that interpret the Married Women's Act and its application to interspousal immunity. We will then briefly discuss (and dismiss) the justifications for maintaining interspousal immunity.

A. Our Pre-Stoker Interspousal Immunity Precedent Presented Various Interpretations of the Married Women's Act

¶ 11 Interspousal immunity derives from the common-law concept of coverture. In Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, he describes a wife's legal disabilities due to coverture:

"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; ... and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of an union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage."8

Thus, coverture arose because of the unity of husband and wife; upon marriage, the husband and wife became one, and therefore, the wife could neither sue that entity of which she was a part nor enforce liabilities against third parties.

¶ 12 In the revised statutes of 1898, the Utah Legislature enacted the Married Women's Act (the "Act"),9 which enables wives to

169 P.3d 444

sue and be sued, enforce liabilities, and take actions to protect their rights "as if unmarried."10 The pertinent parts of the Act, left unchanged from their original enactment, are found in Utah Code sections 30-2-2 and 30-2-4. Section 30-2-2 reads:

Contracts may be made by a wife, and liabilities incurred and enforced by or against her, to the same extent and in the same manner as if she were unmarried.

Section 30-2-4 reads:

A wife may receive the wages for her personal labor, maintain an action therefor in her own name and hold the same in her own right, and may prosecute and defend all actions for the preservation and protection of her rights and property as if unmarried. There shall be no right of recovery by the husband on account of personal injury or wrong to his wife, or for expenses connected therewith, but the wife may recover against a third person for such injury or wrong as if unmarried, and such recovery shall include expenses of medical treatment and other expenses paid or assumed by the husband.11

¶ 13 In Taylor v. Patten,12 we first considered whether interspousal immunity was consistent with the Married Women's Act. In a 3-2 decision, we allowed a wife's intentional tort claim against her husband. We held that "[u]nder modern Husband and Wife statutes, such as ours, [the] fiction [of coverture] has been completely eliminated and the wife has been completely emancipated from this inability to own, control and manage her property, and from her inability to sue and be sued for the protection of her property and personal rights."13 In the lead opinion, two members of the majority concluded as follows:

From the foregoing it is clear that the legislature intended to establish the separate identity of the husband and wife in all property and personal rights the same as if they were not married. Giving these statutes a liberal construction to effect their objects and in the interest of justice requires us to hold that a wife can sue and be sued the same as if she were unmarried, even for the recovery of damages from her husband for intentional personal injury.14

¶ 14 Justice Crockett limited his concurrence to the facts of the case — that the intentional tort occurred while the parties' divorce action was pending — and "reserv[ed] judgment as to the more comprehensive proposition that such a suit could be maintained at any time during the marriage relation."15 Justice Crockett discussed the two primary justifications for interspousal immunity: the dangers of marital discord and collusive lawsuits. He noted "that [these] factors upon which the policy [of interspousal immunity] is based are either non-existent, or at least not nearly so cogent during the interlocutory period [of a pending divorce]."16

¶ 15 In Rubalcava v. Gisseman,17 a 4-1 decision, we overruled Taylor and held that a wife could not sue her husband for a negligent tort arising during their marriage.18 Writing for the majority, Justice Crockett used some of the same reasoning that he used in his concurrence in Taylor. In Rubalcava, we acknowledged the continued relevance of the underlying rationales for interspousal immunity.19 We agreed with other courts "that it should be the purpose of the law to protect family solidarity."20 We also stated that "the temptation to collusion exists; and this is increased when the supposedly adverse parties are in the symbiotic

169 P.3d 445

relationship of husband and wife."21 Moreover, we stated that "to allow interspousal actions `encourages raids...

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15 practice notes
  • State v. Strieff, No. 20100541–CA.
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • August 30, 2012
    ...the court's interpretation of precedent in reaching its decision to suppress for correctness. See generally Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, 2007 UT 77, ¶ 6, 169 P.3d 441 (stating the standard for reviewing the district court's interpretation of precedent).ANALYSISI. State v. Topanotes ¶ 7 As a th......
  • Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 20200334
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • January 20, 2022
    ...In Ellis v. Estate of Ellis , we interpreted this language to "not operate if a person is mentally incompetent but has a legal guardian." 2007 UT 77, ¶ 31 n.60, 169 P.3d 441.¶28 In 2008, less than six months after Ellis , the Legislature amended the Tolling Statute to the present version in......
  • Medel v. State, No. 20060160.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • April 25, 2008
    ...district court denial of habeas corpus petition). 6. 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). 7. Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, 2007 UT 77, ¶ 6, 169 P.3d 441; Medved v. Glenn, 2005 UT 77, ¶ 8, 125 P.3d 913 ("[T]he propriety of a motion to dismiss is a question of law . . . ." (internal......
  • Daniels v. Gamma West Brachytherapy, LLC, No. 20080201.
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • October 2, 2009
    ...2005 UT 12, ¶ 7, 114 P.3d 546). Similarly, we review a trial court's statutory interpretation for correctness. Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, 2007 UT 77, ¶ 6, 169 P.3d 441. ¶ 41 Whether a claim may be the basis for punitive damages is governed by Utah Code section 78B-8-201, which allows punitiv......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
15 cases
  • State v. Strieff, No. 20100541–CA.
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • August 30, 2012
    ...the court's interpretation of precedent in reaching its decision to suppress for correctness. See generally Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, 2007 UT 77, ¶ 6, 169 P.3d 441 (stating the standard for reviewing the district court's interpretation of precedent).ANALYSISI. State v. Topanotes ¶ 7 As a th......
  • Zilleruelo v. Commodity Transporters, Inc., 20200334
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • January 20, 2022
    ...In Ellis v. Estate of Ellis , we interpreted this language to "not operate if a person is mentally incompetent but has a legal guardian." 2007 UT 77, ¶ 31 n.60, 169 P.3d 441.¶28 In 2008, less than six months after Ellis , the Legislature amended the Tolling Statute to the present version in......
  • Medel v. State, No. 20060160.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Utah
    • April 25, 2008
    ...district court denial of habeas corpus petition). 6. 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963). 7. Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, 2007 UT 77, ¶ 6, 169 P.3d 441; Medved v. Glenn, 2005 UT 77, ¶ 8, 125 P.3d 913 ("[T]he propriety of a motion to dismiss is a question of law . . . ." (internal......
  • Daniels v. Gamma West Brachytherapy, LLC, No. 20080201.
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • October 2, 2009
    ...2005 UT 12, ¶ 7, 114 P.3d 546). Similarly, we review a trial court's statutory interpretation for correctness. Ellis v. Estate of Ellis, 2007 UT 77, ¶ 6, 169 P.3d 441. ¶ 41 Whether a claim may be the basis for punitive damages is governed by Utah Code section 78B-8-201, which allows punitiv......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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