Hatton v. Energy Elec. Co.

Decision Date15 December 2006
Docket NumberNo. 06-32.,06-32.
Citation2006 WY 151,148 P.3d 8
PartiesRebecca HATTON and Asa Hatton, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. ENERGY ELECTRIC CO., a Wyoming corporation, Appellee (Defendant).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellants: William R. Fix and Jenna V. Mandraccia of William R. Fix, P.C., Jackson, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee: John R. Goodell of Racine, Olson, Nye, Budge & Bailey, Chtd., Pocatello, Idaho.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

KITE, Justice.

[¶ 1] Rebecca Hatton was injured in an automobile accident while she was traveling through road construction in the Snake River Canyon. She and her husband, Asa Hatton, filed suit against the general contractor and various subcontractors on the job, including Energy Electric Co. (EEC), claiming the defendants were negligent in providing safety precautions in the construction area. The district court granted EEC's summary judgment motion, ruling EEC did not owe a duty to the Hattons because it was not working in the area of the accident and had no control over the accident site. After the district court declared the judgment was final, the Hattons appealed, arguing the evidence in the record demonstrated there were genuine issues of material fact about the duty element of their negligence cause of action and the district court prematurely granted summary judgment before they had an opportunity to complete discovery. We conclude the district court properly ruled that EEC did not owe a duty to the Hattons because there was no evidence EEC had control over the work site where the accident occurred. In addition, under the circumstances presented here, we conclude the district court's summary judgment order was not premature. Consequently, we affirm.

ISSUES

[¶ 2] The Hattons pose the following issues on appeal:

I. Whether the lower court's Order Granting Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment in favor of Defendant Energy Electric, Co., was proper.

II. Whether the lower court's Order Granting Energy Electric's Motion for Final Summary Judgment in favor of Defendant Energy Electric, Co., was proper.

EEC does not set out a separate statement of appellate issues.

FACTS

[¶ 3] LeGrand Johnson Construction Company (LeGrand) was the general contractor on a highway construction project in the Snake River Canyon in Teton County. LeGrand entered into a subcontract with EEC in January 2000, which generally identified the work to be performed by EEC as "[e]lectrical and related items."

[¶ 4] According to the official accident report, Mrs. Hatton was driving through the road construction project on October 31, 2000. Approximately .05 miles south of milepost 140, she encountered an orange traffic cone in her driving lane. She swerved to avoid the cone and then overcorrected, causing her car to leave the roadway and roll over, coming to rest on its roof. Mr. and Mrs. Hatton filed two separate complaints, which were consolidated by the district court, naming various contractors involved in the project including LeGrand and EEC as defendants, and seeking damages for Mrs. Hatton's injuries and Mr. Hatton's loss of consortium.

[¶ 5] EEC filed a motion for summary judgment claiming it did not owe a duty to the Hattons because it was not working in the area and had no control over the site of the accident. In support of its motion, EEC filed an affidavit of its vice-president, Lee Middleton, which relied upon the official accident report to establish the nature, location, and time of the accident. Based upon that information, Mr. Middleton attested to the following facts concerning EEC's presence and role in the road construction project:

3. On January 26, 2000, EEC entered into a subcontract agreement with Legrand Johnson Construction Co., whereby EEC agreed to perform certain services as an electrical subcontractor on WYDOT's highway construction job on U.S. Highway 89 between Alpine Junction and Hoback Junction.

4. On the date and location of Plaintiff's auto accident, as described in such Report, EEC was doing no work on the WYDOT highway construction job being done by others in the area on U.S. Highway 89 between Alpine Junction and Hoback Junction.

5. In accordance with EEC's subcontract agreement, and related construction drawings and documents, EEC performed electrical and related work in four separate (4) job locations. The location and nature of the work performed in each location are as follows:

1st location: At approximately MP [milepost] 135, which is also approximately 500 meters before the beginning of the project on the south end of the southbound lane, a beacon was placed on a wildlife signpost;

2nd location: At approximately MP 138 southbound lane, a beacon was placed on a wildlife signpost;

3rd location: Work in the town of Alpine near a trailer park on the north end of the town which is south of the road project;

4th location: Work at Hoback Junction which is north of the road project.

All of these locations are at least two (2) miles or more from MP 140 where the Plaintiff's accident occurred.

6. This Defendant's work on the subject job, when such was being performed, consisted solely of installing "electrical work and related items."

7. This Defendant's work on the subject job, when such are being performed, was done completely off and away from the traveled roadway, and had no impact on traffic movement.

8. This Defendant's scope of work had nothing to do with placing or maintaining temporary traffic cones or other safety or traffic flow devices at any time.

9. This Defendant had shut down work on the job for the winter on October 9, 2000. This Defendant did not resume work on the subject job until July 20, 2001 the following year. Plaintiff's auto accident reportedly occurred on October 31, 2000. At that time, this Defendant was off the job for over three (3) weeks.

[¶ 6] In response to EEC's summary judgment motion, the Hattons argued the evidence showed EEC was working "at the accident site" and the subcontract required EEC to provide safety precautions in the area of the accident. In support of their position, they submitted a copy of the subcontract between LeGrand and EEC and an affidavit from Kent Ketterling, a Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) employee. Mr. Ketterling stated WYDOT, pursuant to a request from the Hattons, provided a number of documents from its files pertaining to the road construction project, including contracts, engineer reports, project diaries, etc. Other than the transmittal letters, the documents referenced in Mr. Ketterling's affidavit are not included in the record on appeal.

[¶ 7] The district court held a hearing on EEC's summary judgment motion and concluded there were no issues of material fact regarding whether EEC had any control over the accident site and, therefore, it could not have owed a duty to the Hattons. Consequently, the district court granted EEC a summary judgment. The order stated, in relevant part:

Defendant Energy Electric Co. (EEC) did not have a legal duty to the Plaintiffs. EEC performed a limited scope of work in the Snake River Canyon, specifically, a flashing beacon light on a wildlife sign at milepost 135 and 138. The closest location of work was at least two miles from the accident scene. The scope of work was off the road and had nothing to do with traffic cones, safety, traffic flow, or related matters at the time of the accident. Further, EEC had completed all of its work for the season and had removed itself from the accident scene on October 9, 2000. EEC was not on site or working on October 31, 2000, the day of the accident.

The district court also ruled there was "no reason for delay" in entering a final judgment and dismissed the Hattons' complaint against EEC with prejudice. The Hattons appealed.

DISCUSSION

[¶ 8] We evaluate the propriety of a summary judgment by employing the same standards and using the same materials as the district court. Cook v. Shoshone First Bank, 2006 WY 13, ¶ 11, 126 P.3d 886, 889 (Wyo.2006). Thus, our review is plenary. Birt v. Wells Fargo Home Mortg., Inc., 2003 WY 102, ¶ 7, 75 P.3d 640, 647 (Wyo.2003).

Wyo. R. Civ. P. 56 governs summary judgments. A summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. W.R.C.P. 56(c). When reviewing a summary judgment, we consider the record in the perspective most favorable to the party opposing the motion and give that party the benefit of all favorable inferences which may be fairly drawn from the record. We review questions of law de novo without giving any deference to the district court's determinations.

Cathcart v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2005 WY 154, ¶ 11, 123 P.3d 579, 586 (Wyo. 2005), quoting Baker v. Ayres and Baker Pole and Post, Inc., 2005 WY 97, ¶ 14, 117 P.3d 1234, 1239 (Wyo.2005).

[¶ 9] "A genuine issue of material fact exists when a disputed fact, if it were proven, would establish or refute an essential element of a cause of action or a defense that the parties have asserted." Christensen v. Carbon County, 2004 WY 135, ¶ 8, 100 P.3d 411, 413 (Wyo.2004) (quoting Metz Beverage Co. v. Wyoming Beverages, Inc., 2002 WY 21, ¶ 9, 39 P.3d 1051, 1055 (Wyo.2002)). The party requesting a summary judgment bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case for summary judgment. If he carries his burden, "the party who is opposing the motion for summary judgment must present specific facts to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists." Id. We have explained the duties of the party opposing a motion for summary judgment as follows:

"After a movant has adequately supported the motion for summary judgment, the opposing party must come forward with competent evidence admissible at trial showing there are genuine issues of material fact. The opposing party must affirmatively set forth material, specific...

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