Gillihan v. Gump, 28508.

Citation99 P.3d 1083,140 Idaho 693
Decision Date12 August 2003
Docket NumberNo. 28508.,28508.
PartiesDeborah Jean "DJ" GILLIHAN, as the natural parent and guardian of Celia Gillihan, a minor, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Heidi L. GUMP, individually; Solveig H. Lenhartzen, individually; and Does I-V, unknown parties, Defendants-Respondents.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Idaho

Litster Law Offices, Boise, for appellant. Richard K. Dredge argued.

Hall, Farley, Oberrecht & Blanton, Boise, for respondents. Raymond D. Powers argued.

LANSING, Chief Judge.

This is an appeal from an award of attorney fees in a personal injury action. The defendants, as prevailing parties, were awarded attorney fees pursuant to Idaho Code § 12-120(1). The plaintiff appeals, arguing that defendants may not recover attorney fees in personal injury actions under § 12-120. We find the plaintiff's interpretation of the statute to be correct, and we therefore reverse.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Deborah Jean Gillihan, as parent and guardian of Celia Gillihan, brought this tort action against Heidi L. Gump and Sloveig H. Lenhartzen seeking damages of less than $25,000 for injuries that Celia, a minor, received on the defendants' property. The injury occurred when Celia stepped on a wooden plank covering the defendants' irrigation box and the plank broke. A jury trial resulted in a verdict finding that both parties were negligent and assessing 90 percent of the negligence to Celia, with 10 percent assigned to the defendants. The district court accordingly entered judgment in favor of the defendants. See I.C. § 6-801.

The defendants later filed a motion requesting an award of attorney fees pursuant to I.C. § 12-120(1). Gillihan objected, arguing that I.C. § 12-120(1) is not applicable to personal injury actions and that under I.C. § 12-120(4), attorney fees may be recovered only by prevailing plaintiffs in such actions. The district court granted the defendants' motion and awarded attorney fees under I.C. § 12-120(1). Gillihan appeals.

II. ANALYSIS
A. Attorney Fees in Personal Injury Actions for $25,000 or Less

Idaho law regarding the recovery of attorney fees by litigants follows the "American rule," which requires that litigants bear their own attorney fees absent a contractual right or a statutory authorization. Great Plains Equip., Inc. v. Northwest Pipeline Corp., 132 Idaho 754, 771, 979 P.2d 627, 644 (1999); State ex rel. Higginson v. United States, 128 Idaho 246, 256, 912 P.2d 614, 624 (1995); Idaho Dep't of Law Enforcement v. Kluss, 125 Idaho 682, 684, 873 P.2d 1336, 1338 (1994), overruled on other grounds by Rincover v. State, Dep't of Finance, Sec. Bureau, 132 Idaho 547, 976 P.2d 473 (1999). Idaho Code § 12-120 provides such an authorization for the award of attorney fees to prevailing litigants in certain types of actions. At issue in this case are subsection (1) of that statute, pertaining to actions where the amount does not exceed $25,000, and subsection (4), which pertains to personal injury actions for damages not exceeding $25,000. The relevant portions of these subsections provide as follows:

(1) Except as provided in subsections (3) and (4) of this section, in any action where the amount pleaded is twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) or less, there shall be taxed and allowed to the prevailing party, as part of the costs of the action, a reasonable amount to be fixed by the court as attorney's fees. For the plaintiff to be awarded attorney's fees, for the prosecution of the action, written demand for the payment of such claim must have been made on the defendant not less than ten (10) days before the commencement of the action; provided, that no attorney's fees shall be allowed to the plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant tendered to the plaintiff, prior to the commencement of the action, an amount at least equal to ninety-five percent (95%) of the amount awarded to the plaintiff.
....
(4) In actions for personal injury, where the amount of plaintiff's claim for damages does not exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000), there shall be taxed and allowed to the claimant, as part of the costs of the action, a reasonable amount to be fixed by the court as attorney's fees. For the plaintiff to be awarded attorney's fees for the prosecution of the action, written demand for payment of the claim and a statement of claim must have been served... not less than sixty (60) days before the commencement of the action; provided that no attorney's fees shall be allowed to the plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant tendered to the plaintiff, prior to the commencement of the action, an amount at least equal to ninety percent (90%) of the amount awarded to the plaintiff.

Questions about the interplay between these two subsections and the meaning of legislative language utilized in subsection (4) are the core of this appeal. Gillihan maintains that subsection (4) is now the exclusive provision governing attorney fee awards in personal injury actions and that it authorizes recovery only for prevailing plaintiffs. She relies upon the language in subsection (4) that "there shall be taxed and allowed to the claimant ... a reasonable amount ... as attorney's fees." Because subsection (4) authorizes attorney fees only for the claimant, she argues, attorney fees are not recoverable by a prevailing defendant in a personal injury case.

The defendants do not contest Gillihan's assertion that subsection (4) mandates fee awards to plaintiffs only, but they assert that they remain entitled to an award under subsection (1). According to the defendants, subsection (4) operates only when a prevailing plaintiff is seeking attorney fees in a personal injury action, and it has no effect when a defendant is the prevailing party. The defendants maintain that adoption of subsection (4), which was added to the statute in 1996,1 did not terminate the right of a prevailing defendant to receive an award under subsection (1); rather, subsection (4) merely modifies the requirements that must be met by an injured plaintiff seeking attorney fees and does not apply to nor limit a defendant's ability to seek an award under subsection (1).

When engaging in statutory interpretation, it is our objective to give effect to the intent of the legislature. If the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, it is our obligation to apply the plain words of the statute, and there is no need for us to engage in statutory construction. Jen-Rath Co., Inc. v. Kit Mfg. Co., 137 Idaho 330, 335, 48 P.3d 659, 664 (2002); Payette River Prop. Owners Ass'n v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Valley County, 132 Idaho 551, 556, 976 P.2d 477, 483 (1999); State v. Griffith, 130 Idaho 64, 66, 936 P.2d 707, 709 (Ct.App.1997); Ada County v. Gibson, 126 Idaho 854, 856, 893 P.2d 801, 803 (Ct.App.1995).

We find the defendants' proposed interpretation of § 12-120(1) and (4) to be untenable, as the language of the statute does not support it. The opening words of subsection (1) make it clear that it does not apply in cases that are subject to subsection (4), and the opening words of subsection (4) establish that it governs "[i]n actions for personal injury, where the amount of plaintiff's claim for damages does not exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000)." If the legislature had intended that personal injury actions be governed by both subsections (1) and (4), depending upon which party prevailed, we are confident that it would have done so with explicit language. The defendants' interpretation is strained and injects into the statute a level of complexity that is not suggested in the words chosen by the legislature.

This does not end our analysis, however, for although it is not argued by the defendants, we do find in subsection (4) an ambiguity that must be addressed in order to properly resolve the question whether defendants in small personal injury actions may recover attorney fees under § 12-120(4). That ambiguity arises from the use of the word "claimant" in subsection (4) to describe the party to whom attorney fees may be granted. At first blush, most readers probably would surmise that "claimant" refers to the plaintiff because it is the plaintiff who makes a claim in a personal injury action. This view is bolstered by the use of the word "claim" several times in subsection (4), each time clearly referring to damages sought by a plaintiff. If a "claim" is made by a "claimant," then one can sensibly conclude that "claimant" must refer to the plaintiff who is seeking damages. It is also reasonable, however, to interpret "claimant" to refer to the party claiming an entitlement to attorney fees, whether that party is the plaintiff or the defendant. Indeed, one may ask why, if the legislature intended "claimant" to mean plaintiff, it did not use the word "plaintiff" inasmuch as "plaintiff" is used elsewhere throughout subsection (4) and subsection (1). If the second interpretation is correct, then the award to the defendants in this case was authorized by subsection (4).

To resolve an ambiguity in a statute, courts may look to a statute's legislative history, including changes to the statute through amendments, to discern and implement the intent of the legislature. Corp. of the Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Ada County, 123 Idaho 410, 416, 849 P.2d 83, 89 (1993); Leliefeld v. Johnson, 104 Idaho 357, 367, 659 P.2d 111, 121 (1983). Consulting the legislative history of § 12-120(4) is illuminating and, in our view, establishes that the legislature meant "claimant" to refer to the plaintiff. Before 1996, personal injury actions, like other actions involving $25,000 or less, were governed by § 12-120(1). The bill introduced in 1996 to add a new subsection (4) to I.C. § 12-120 was House Bill 708, and in that bill's original form, subsection (4) stated "... there shall be taxed and allowed to the prevailing party ... a reasonable amount... as attorney's fees." (Emphasis added.) Bef...

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2 cases
  • State v. Hoyle
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • July 21, 2004
  • Gonzalez v. Thacker
    • United States
    • Idaho Supreme Court
    • January 21, 2009
    ...fees in an action meeting the other requirements of the statute. Id. There are two problems with this view. As Judge Lansing pointed out in Gillihan I, the first is that:The opening words of subsection (1) make it clear that it does not apply in cases that are subject to subsection (4), and......

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