Higgins v. Salt Lake County, 900255

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Citation855 P.2d 231
Docket NumberNo. 900255,900255
PartiesKathy Lynn HIGGINS, individually and as guardian ad litem for Shaundra Higgins, her daughter, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. SALT LAKE COUNTY, William Kuentzel, Sheryl Steadman, The University of Utah, The University Medical Center, Caroline Trujillo, and John Does 1 through 10, Defendants and Appellees.
Decision Date14 May 1993

Rodney G. Snow, James L. Warlaumont, Neil A. Kaplan, Stephen G. Stoker, Salt Lake City, and David B. Thomas, Provo, for the Higginses.

David E. Yocom, Patricia J. Marlowe, Salt Lake City, for the County.

Ronald E. Nehring, Salt Lake City, for Valley Mental Health.

Stephen J. Hill, Salt Lake City, for University of Utah and University Medical Center.


This case is before us on appeal from summary judgment in favor of defendants Salt Lake County, Dr. William Kuentzel, Sheryl Steadman, and the University of Utah. Plaintiff Kathy Lynn Higgins, who is suing individually and as guardian ad litem for her daughter Shaundra Higgins, argues that the trial court erred in ruling that defendants owed no duty to protect either her or her daughter from a potentially dangerous mental patient. We conclude that the trial court erred in finding no duty but affirm the lower court's summary judgment on the alternative ground that governmental immunity bars Higgins's action.

Before we recite the facts, we note that in reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. E.g., Smith v. Batchelor, 832 P.2d 467, 468 (Utah 1992); Rollins v. Petersen, 813 P.2d 1156, 1158 (Utah 1991); Utah State Coalition of Senior Citizens v. Utah Power & Light, 776 P.2d 632, 634 (Utah 1989). We state the facts in this case accordingly. See Sandy City v. Salt Lake County, 827 P.2d 212, 215 (Utah 1992).

On April 10, 1984, Carolyn Trujillo, a voluntary patient at Salt Lake County Mental Health ("SLCMH"), 1 stabbed then ten-year-old Shaundra. Trujillo had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with organic brain dysfunction and marginal intelligence. Her mental illness manifested itself when she was a teenager and was complicated by her abuse of illegal drugs. Prior to the stabbing, she had been an involuntary patient four times at the University of Utah Medical Center ("UMC") and twice at the Utah State Hospital. In late 1975, following Trujillo's release from her first hospitalization at UMC, Sheryl Steadman, a registered nurse, was assigned as Trujillo's primary therapist.

In July of 1981, Ogden police charged Trujillo with assault and disorderly conduct after she struck a woman and a child. Trujillo pleaded guilty in an Ogden court to disorderly conduct. Before sentencing, however, she stabbed an elderly woman in the buttocks in Salt Lake City and was charged with aggravated assault. The Salt Lake court committed her to the Utah State Hospital for a thirty-day evaluation to determine her competency to stand trial. On December 1, 1981, she was found incompetent to stand trial on the aggravated assault charge and pleaded no contest to the reduced charge of simple assault several days later. She was placed on probation for one year. As a condition of probation, Trujillo was ordered to enter a residential mental health program at Salt Lake County's Adult Residential Treatment Unit ("ARTU") in Salt Lake City.

In February of 1982, the Ogden court placed Trujillo on one year's probation in connection with the disorderly conduct charge. As a condition of probation, Trujillo was ordered to take her medications and continue her treatment at ARTU. In January of 1983, Trujillo's probation officer recommended that both the Ogden and Salt Lake City probation orders be terminated because Trujillo had complied with the conditions of both. Her probations in Ogden and Salt Lake City were subsequently terminated.

In February of 1984, Trujillo superficially cut her wrists. Two days later, she and her mother went to the UMC emergency room and requested that Trujillo be hospitalized. The request was denied, allegedly due to a shortage of beds, but Katy Jones, a crisis specialist on the UMC staff, referred Trujillo to ARTU for a crisis stay. When Trujillo arrived at ARTU on that Saturday, Larry Romero, a crisis line operator who was not authorized to diagnose patients, created a treatment plan for Trujillo that called for a short stay to assess her living environment. Dr. Joy Ely, a part-time psychiatrist at ARTU, saw Trujillo the following Monday. Trujillo was discharged from ARTU on March 14, 1984, and was placed in an evening/weekend program, a move calculated to ease her transition from the institution to society. She attended several, but not all, sessions through the end of the month and last saw Steadman on March 21, 1984. At this meeting, Steadman found Trujillo to be stable.

On April 10, 1984, Trujillo was alone at her home when she heard voices telling her "to stab someone." She left the house and began walking toward a nearby alley. When she spotted Shaundra, a child she knew from the neighborhood, she followed the girl into the alley next to her house. Trujillo called to Shaundra and then stabbed the girl three times, severing her aorta and puncturing her abdomen. Despite her injuries, Shaundra survived the attack.

Higgins claims that Trujillo had been brooding over and planning to hurt Shaundra for six months before the attack. However, in an interview with police detectives after the stabbing, Trujillo said that she had no particular victim in mind when she armed herself with a knife and left her room. She told the detectives that she intended to stab "[j]ust anybody." In a subsequent interview, Trujillo told a psychiatrist that even though she was not looking for Shaundra at the time of the stabbing, she believed that Shaundra had struck her six-year-old daughter. She also said that she hated Higgins because Higgins refused to give her cigarettes and was "a slut."

Trujillo was found "guilty and mentally ill" of the charge of attempted criminal homicide, a second degree felony, and was committed to the Utah State Hospital. 2 Shortly thereafter, Higgins sued Salt Lake County and the University of Utah, claiming that they owed her and her daughter a duty to control and/or to treat Trujillo correctly and that if defendants had performed their professional duties properly, the stabbing would not have occurred. Higgins sought damages for her own emotional distress and for physical and emotional injuries to her daughter.

Higgins asserted the following specific allegations of negligence as a basis for her suit. First, she contended that the University of Utah was negligent in its treatment of Trujillo in that UMC's crisis specialist, nurse Jones, was negligent in her diagnosis, treatment, and failure to have Trujillo involuntarily committed or voluntarily admitted to the hospital after her suicide attempt. Particularly, Higgins asserted that Jones (i) never reviewed Trujillo's medical records, (ii) did not involve qualified personnel in evaluating Trujillo, and (iii) never evaluated Trujillo's threat to others in the community.

Second, Higgins contended that Salt Lake County was negligent in its diagnosis, supervision, treatment of, and failure to commit Trujillo. Specifically, she alleged that (i) therapist Steadman prescribed improper medication for Trujillo, (ii) crisis worker Romero was unqualified to diagnose or create a treatment plan, and (iii) Dr. Ely was unqualified to handle Trujillo's case and failed to review Trujillo's medical records or consult with qualified personnel. The trial court granted summary judgment for defendants on the ground that they owed no duty of care to either Higgins or her daughter. Higgins appeals.

We first state the applicable standard of review. Summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Utah R.Civ.P. 56(c); Sandy City, 827 P.2d at 214; Rollins, 813 P.2d at 1159; Landes v. Capital City Bank, 795 P.2d 1127, 1129 (Utah 1990). Because entitlement to summary judgment is a question of law, no deference is due the trial court's determination of the issues presented. However, we may affirm a grant of summary judgment on any ground available to the trial court, even if it is one not relied on below. See Hill v. Seattle First Nat'l Bank, 827 P.2d 241, 246 (Utah 1992).

With this standard in mind, we turn to the issues on appeal, which are as follows: First, assuming that defendants may have failed to use reasonable care in treating, supervising, diagnosing, and not committing Trujillo, did defendants owe a duty to the Higginses, and if so, did such acts and omissions breach that duty? Second, even if there was such a breach of duty, does the Governmental Immunity Act, Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-10, bar Higgins's claims? We discuss these issues in turn. 3 As the trial court recognized below, the proper sequence of analysis is to determine, first, whether defendants had a duty to the Higginses and, if so, whether they breached that duty, and second, whether governmental immunity shields defendants from suit. Rollins, 813 P.2d at 1162 n. 3.

We begin with the question of defendants' duty to the Higginses. Duty is an essential element of negligence. E.g., Rollins, 813 P.2d at 1159; Ferree v. State, 784 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1989); Beach v. University of Utah, 726 P.2d 413, 415 (Utah 1986). Unless defendants owed a duty to the Higginses, there is no cause of action. Higgins advances several theories upon which to base a finding of duty. These theories have two basic conceptual themes: first, that defendants owed a general duty to any third party foreseeably at risk from their negligence in treating and supervising Trujillo, and second, that a special relationship existed between defendants and...

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