I. T. K. v. Mounds Pub. Sch.

Decision Date24 September 2019
Docket NumberNo. 115,069,115,069
Parties I. T. K., a Minor Individual, By and Through His Parents and Natural Guardians Ian Knight and Carolyn Leffew, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. MOUNDS PUBLIC SCHOOLS, and William Richard Knox, an Individual, Defendants/Appellees.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

Guy A. Thiessen, GT Law Firm, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

Ammar S. Wasfi, pro hac vice, The Killino Firm, P.C., Philadelphia, PA, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

Matthew P. Cyran, Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Defendants/Appellees Independent School District No. 5, Creek County, Oklahoma a/k/a Mounds Public Schools, and William Richard Knox.

EDMONDSON, J.

¶1 The three basic questions raised on certiorari are: (1) Is an Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims notice sent by certified mail to a superintendent of a public school statutorily sufficient; (2) Does an insurance adjuster's request for more information toll the GTCA time limits if the request also states an intent for tolling to not occur; and (3) Does a unilateral request by plaintiff for settlement negotiations toll the GTCA time limits? We hold plaintiff's Governmental Tort Claims Act (GTCA) notice of claim sent to the correct school superintendent by certified mail satisfied the requirement in 51 O.S. § 156(D) for filing the GTCA notice with the office of the clerk of the school's board of education, although the superintendent did not transmit the notice to the proper clerk for filing. We hold the insurance adjuster's request for additional information did not toll the 90-day time limit for approval, denial, or deemed denial of the GTCA claim when the request expressly stated it would not extend or waive the GTCA time limits. We hold a plaintiff's letter unilaterally seeking settlement negotiations is not an agreement pursuant to 51 O.S. § 157 to toll the GTCA time limits.

I. The Case and Issues Raised by Parties

¶2 Plaintiff, a six-year-old child, by and through his parents, filed a Governmental Tort Claims Act (GTCA)1 action in the District Court, and alleged that on January 10, 2012, William Knox, a bus driver for the Mounds Public Schools, negligently operated the bus causing the child to be injured. The record provided by plaintiff shows the child was taken to a hospital emergency room, given several diagnostic tests, and treated with 4 staples for one laceration and Dermabond for another. When he filed his District Court action more than one year later he alleged he had medical-related expenses in the amount of $6,209.30, and potential unknown medical expenses as a result of being hit by the bus. Further, he alleged pain and suffering and sought a sum in excess of $10,000.

¶3 Two weeks after the injury and on January 26, 2012, plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to both the school superintendent and school insurance adjuster. The letter states counsel's representation of plaintiff, plaintiff sustained an injury on Jan. 10, 2012, while exiting a Mounds School District bus. The letter states plaintiff received serious injuries. Counsel requested the superintendent to send all liability insurance information to the lawyer, have the school's insurance carrier contact him immediately, and preserve evidence relating to the event. The school superintendent forwarded his January 26th letter to the school district's insurance adjuster. The superintendent did not forward the original or a copy to a clerk for the board of education.

¶4 The insurance adjuster responded by a letter dated January 30, 2012. The letter acknowledged counsel's representation of the injured child, identity of the child, the insured school district, date of loss, and insurance claim number. The adjuster's letter requested information concerning the injuries claimed, names and addresses of plaintiff's doctors, witnesses, and medical authorization signed by plaintiff's guardian for release of medical information. The letter stated an investigation had been initiated into the matter. The letter also included the following separate paragraph at the end of the letter.

My communications with you and my investigation of this matter are not intended to waive any statutory exemptions from liability or time limitations imposed by the Oklahoma Tort Claims Act. Further, any settlement negotiations or discussions do not extend the date of denial of your client's claim.

The adjuster's letter contains his name, the entity he represents, mailing address in Tulsa, Oklahoma, telephone number, and email address.

¶5 One year later, on January 30, 2013, counsel for plaintiff sent a demand letter to the insurance adjuster stating it was the "first and only pre-suit formal demand in order to settle this matter without litigation." Unlike the letter of January 26, 2012, the letter of January 30, 2013, stated a demand for a specified sum of money.2 Defense counsel responded by letter and stated the claim was time-barred. Plaintiff responded by letter and stated the time limits had been tolled. Attached to plaintiff's letter was copy of a letter plaintiff's counsel asserted he had mailed September 5, 2012, and this September letter was part of an ongoing investigation and a response to the adjuster's request for more information. Defense counsel responded and stated the September letter had never been received by defendants.

¶6 After these letters, plaintiff filed a GTCA action in the District Court on May 31, 2013, against both the school district and the bus driver. The school district and bus driver filed a combined motion to dismiss stating the GTCA notice of claim was improper, the GTCA claim was time-barred, and the bus driver was not liable to suit on a GTCA claim because he had been acting within the scope of his employment when the child was injured.

¶7 The District Court held a hearing and determined: (1) The bus driver was acting within the scope of his employment and should be dismissed as a party; (2) The letter received by the insurance adjuster and superintendent in January 2012 was a notice of a GTCA claim provided to the school district; (3) The letter of the insurance adjuster did not toll the GTCA time limits; (4) The claim was deemed denied 90 days after this date; (5) The trial judge had doubts whether the letter of September 2012 had been mailed as asserted by counsel; (6) The content of the September 2012 letter was insufficient to create an agreement to toll or extend the GTCA time limits; and (7) Plaintiff "failed to comply with both the 180 day rule and one-year rule." The trial judge granted the defendants' motion to dismiss with prejudice.

¶8 Plaintiff appealed and raised the following assignments of error in his petition in error.

1. The trial court stated plaintiff was in substantial compliance with the notice requirements in 51 O.S. § 156, but the Journal Entry of Judgment does not state such;
2. Trial court erred in applying 51 O.S. § 157 because the adjuster's letter of January 30, 2012, tolled the time limits in § 157 ;
3. The September 5, 2012 letter from plaintiff's counsel "started anew the 90-day period for an action on the claim under 51 O.S.Supp.1992 § 157 ;"
4. The trial court erred because the September 5, 2012, letter was "providing additional information and confirming time to evaluate the claim and upon which to negotiate a settlement, was confirming in writing of additional time to negotiate a settlement starting anew the 90-day period for an action on a claim under 51 O.S.Supp.1992 § 157 ;"
5. The trial court erred by determining that even if defendants never received the September 5th letter plaintiff's "January 30, 2013 demand packet provided additional information to evaluate the claim and upon which to negotiate a settlement in response to Defendant/Appellee's request, thereby starting anew the 90-day period for action on the claim under 51 O.S.Supp.1992 § 157, making Appellant's May 31, 2013 filing of the action timely;" and
6. The trial court erred in basing its dismissal "on a ‘one year rule’ applied to the May 13, 2013 filing of the action in accordance with 51 O.S.Supp.1992 § 157."

The GTCA generally precludes naming of individual state employees for tort claims arising in the scope of their employment,3 and plaintiff's assignments of error do not challenge the trial court's dismissal granted to the bus driver.

¶9 The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, Div. III, affirmed the District Court's order dismissing plaintiff's action with prejudice. The appellate court concluded no written notice had been filed with the clerk of the school board by plaintiff's counsel and such was required by 51 O.S. § 156(D). The reasoning relied, in part, on this Court's explanation in Minie v. Hudson ,4 where we construed statutory language in § 156(D) as mandatory for a notice of a GTCA claim to be in writing. The Court of Civil Appeals correctly noted the distinction between a requirement considered mandatory and a requirement satisfied by substantial compliance.5 Plaintiff sought certiorari from this Court, and both plaintiff and school district rely on our opinion in Minie v. Hudson , supra , in support of their arguments on appeal and certiorari. We previously granted the petition for certiorari.

II. Analysis
II (A). Standard of Review and Form of the Journal Entry

¶10 The combined motion to dismiss argued the District Court lacked jurisdiction because plaintiff failed to meet time deadlines jurisdictional and mandatory in nature. While some of our opinions have made summary statements explaining a jurisdictional issue reviewed on appeal presents an issue of law and is reviewed de novo ,6 this Court has often explained in more detail the nature of a decision adjudicating jurisdiction involves both law and fact issues.

¶11 For example, in Chandler v. Denton7 we quoted from our opinion in Abraham v. Homer ,8 and we explained "each element of jurisdiction is dependent upon both law and fact."9 When a decision by a District Court, a court of general jurisdiction, adjudicates a...

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