Gonzalez v. Thacker

Decision Date21 January 2009
Docket NumberNo. 34534.,34534.
Citation231 P.3d 524,148 Idaho 879
PartiesMartin GONZALEZ, Plaintiff-Appellant,v.Shaun THACKER, individually; Terri Reininger, individually; and Does I-V, unknown parties, Defendants-Respondents.
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Holzer Edwards, Chartered, Boise, for appellant. Kurt Holzer argued.

Powers Thomson, P.C., Boise, for respondents. Raymond Powers argued.

HORTON, Justice.

This appeal stems from a district court's award of attorney fees to the defendants in a personal injury action. Appellant Martin Gonzalez (Gonzalez) appeals the district court's award of attorney fees to respondents Shaun Thacker, Terri Reininger, and Does I-V (collectively referred to as Respondents). The district court concluded that Respondents were entitled to attorney fees pursuant to I.C. § 12-120(4), which pertains to attorney fees in personal injury actions. Because we hold that only plaintiffs 1 may be awarded attorney fees under I.C. § 12-120(4), we reverse the district court's award to Respondents.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In late 2004, while driving an automobile, Thacker pulled out from a stop sign into the path of a vehicle in which Gonzalez was riding, injuring Gonzalez and causing him economic and non-economic damages. In May 2005, Gonzalez sent a demand letter to Respondents asking for damages “in excess of $13,000.” In February 2006, Respondents offered to settle Gonzalez's claim for $18,100. Gonzalez filed a complaint in June 2006, and Respondents answered in August 2006. In February 2007, the case went to a Small Lawsuit Resolution Act (SLRA) evaluator, who found Thacker to be 100% at fault for the accident. The evaluator awarded Gonzalez economic damages in the amount of $10,735.57 and $2,000 in non-economic damages. The parties accepted the decision of the evaluator without seeking a trial de novo, and in May 2007 the district court entered a judgment for Gonzalez for $12,725.57.2 In August 2007, the district court relied on this Court's plurality opinion in Gillihan v. Gump, 140 Idaho 264, 92 P.3d 514, (2004) ( Gillihan II ), to determine that I.C. § 12-120(4) does not preclude an award of attorney fees to defendants in personal injury cases in which the plaintiff's claim for damages does not exceed $25,000. The district court entered an order granting Respondents “attorney fees under Idaho Code § 12-120(4) as requested” in the amount of $4,636.50. The district court then amended and reduced Gonzalez's judgment to $8,089.07. Gonzalez timely appealed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When an award of attorney fees depends on the interpretation of a statute, the standard of review for statutory interpretation applies. BECO Const. Co., Inc. v. J-U-B Engr's, Inc., 145 Idaho 719, 726, 184 P.3d 844, 851 (2008). The interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review. State v. Hart, 135 Idaho 827, 829, 25 P.3d 850, 852 (2001).

III. ANALYSIS

This case hinges on the interpretation of I.C. § 12-120, and more specifically on the use of the word claimant in the first sentence of I.C. § 12-120(4). One way to interpret the statute is to conclude that subsection four alone governs attorney fees in personal injury cases where the amount of plaintiff's claim does not exceed $25,000 and mandates an award only to parties who have successfully advanced their claims in such cases-not defendants. Under this interpretation, the word claimant in subsection four refers to the plaintiff in the personal injury action. The Idaho Court of Appeals, in Gillihan v. Gump, 140 Idaho 693, 99 P.3d 1083 (Ct.App.2003) ( Gillihan I ), and two members of this Court, dissenting in Gillihan II, have understood I.C. § 12-120(4) to operate in this way. A plurality of this Court in Gillihan II, however, held that subsection four operates in tandem with subsection one, and that nothing in the former precludes an award of attorney fees to defendants under the latter. In the plurality's view, the word claimant in subsection four refers to either the prevailing plaintiff or defendant in the small personal injury action who is claiming attorney fees.

Critically, the plurality, unlike the Court of Appeals, failed to address the fact that, prior to passage, the legislature amended the phrase “prevailing party to claimant in I.C. § 12-120(4). H. Am. to H.B. No. 708 (1996) (deleting “prevailing party and inserting claimant). The plurality opinion, however, is not binding on this Court. Osick v. Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. of Idaho, 122 Idaho 457, 460, 835 P.2d 1268, 1271 (1992). We must now decide the proper interpretation of I.C. § 12-120 and whether the district court erred in awarding attorney fees to Respondents pursuant to I.C. § 12-120(4).

A. The district court erred when it awarded attorney fees to Respondents under I.C. § 12-120(4).

In interpreting a statute, it is this Court's duty to ascertain and give effect to legislative intent by reading the entire act, including amendments. George W. Watkins Family v. Messenger, 118 Idaho 537, 539-40, 797 P.2d 1385, 1387-88 (1990). If the language of the statute is clear, the Court should apply the plain meaning of the statute. 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, 557, 976 P.2d 477, 483 (1999). If, however, a statute lends itself to more than one reasonable interpretation, it is ambiguous. Carrier v. Lake Pend Oreille Sch. Dist. No. 84, 142 Idaho 804, 807-08, 134 P.3d 655, 658-59 (2006). The meaning of I.C. § 12-120 has spawned litigation and several appeals that have divided both the Court of Appeals as well as this Court. Based on this history, it is fair to say the statute is ambiguous. When a statute is ambiguous, the Court should consider not only the literal words of the statute, but also the reasonableness of proposed constructions, the public policy behind the statute, and its legislative history in order to discern and implement the intent of the legislature. Hayden Lake Fire Prot. Dist. v. Alcorn, 141 Idaho 388, 398-99, 111 P.3d 73, 83-84 (2005); Kelso & Irwin, P.A. v. State Insur. Fund, 134 Idaho 130, 134, 997 P.2d 591, 595 (2000).

I.C. § 12-120 states in relevant part:

(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 on the defendant's insurer, if known, or if there is no known insurer, then on the defendant, 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.

The plurality in Gillihan II, applying the rules of statutory construction stated above, concluded that subsection four does not preclude an award of attorney fees to a defendant. It opined that subsection one governs personal injury actions where the plaintiff's claim for damages does not exceed $25,000 to the extent it is not modified by subsection four. Gillihan II at 267, 92 P.3d at 517. The plurality concluded that subsection four simply changes two parts of subsection one (concerning the specific requirements for plaintiffs to receive an award of attorney fees). Id. Under this view, in subsection four, the use of the word claimant in the phrase “there shall be taxed and allowed to the claimant ... attorney's fees,” means attorney fees shall be taxed and allowed to either a plaintiff or defendant claiming attorney 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 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).”

Gillihan I at 696, 99 P.3d at 1086. The two subsections do not govern together in personal injury actions, and to read them as though they do, as Gonzalez points out, is to edit the statutory language of I.C. § 12-120. The plurality's interpretation is strained, and both parties in this case have agreed (although Respondents reversed their position at oral argument) that once subsection four applies, subsection one no longer governs. The parties do dispute the meaning of the word claimant in subsection four.

Under the plurality's view, as Chief Justice Eismann points out in the Gillihan II dissent, the word claimant in subsection four must be...

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