Ledfors v. Emery County School Dist.

Decision Date19 March 1993
Docket NumberNo. 900503,900503
Citation849 P.2d 1162
Parties82 Ed. Law Rep. 250 Richard C. LEDFORS and Deborah Ledfors, individually and as guardians ad litem on behalf of their minor son Richard Todd Ledfors, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. EMERY COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Brent Arnold and Thomas Burr, individually and as employees of Emery County School District, Brett Payne and Bert W. Sparks, individually, and John Does I through V, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

R. Paul Van Dam, Atty. Gen., Debra J. Moore and Reed M. Stringham, III, Asst. Attys. Gen., for Arnold, Burr, and Emery County School Dist.

Joanne Pappas White, Price, for the Ledforses.

ZIMMERMAN, Justice:

Richard C. and Deborah Ledfors appeal from a grant of summary judgment dismissing the Emery County School District as a party to their negligence suit. The court ruled that section 63-30-10(1)(b) of the Utah Governmental Immunity Act, Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-10(1)(b) (1989) (now codified at § 63-30-10(2)), 1 immunized the school district from a suit arising out of a battery of one of its students. Plaintiffs claim that in so ruling, the district court erred. We disagree and affirm. 2

When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we consider the facts alleged and all reasonable inferences fairly arising therefrom in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Estate Landscape & Snow Removal Specialists, Inc. v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 844 P.2d 322, 323-24 (1992). We state the facts here in accordance with that view. Owens v. Garfield, 784 P.2d 1187, 1188 (Utah 1989). We review the trial court's interpretation of law for correctness. Ferree v. State, 784 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1989).

Richard C. and Deborah Ledfors are the parents of Richard Todd Ledfors ("Richie"), a minor. The Ledforses brought this suit individually and as Richie's guardians ad litem. At all relevant times, Richie was attending Emery County High School. In January of 1989, he complained to the school principal that two fellow students had assaulted him several times. Principal Brent Arnold repeatedly assured Richie that he would take care of the problem. The record does not reveal what steps, if any, the principal took to fulfill those assurances. On February 22nd, Richie was attending his regularly scheduled physical education class. Richie's teacher, Thomas Burr, divided the class into two groups: One played dodge ball in the smaller gym, and the other played floor hockey in the larger gym. No teacher or school employee supervised the group in the smaller gym, the group to which Richie was assigned.

During this class period, the two students who had assaulted Richie earlier in the year were roaming the school halls. They entered the gym where Richie's group was playing and viciously beat Richie. During the beating, Richie's classmates tried unsuccessfully to find a teacher or school employee to intervene. When help finally came, Richie was transported by ambulance to Castleview Hospital, where he was hospitalized for several days with injuries to his head, abdomen, and back.

The Ledforses sued the two students for battery and the school district, the principal, and the physical education teacher for negligence in failing to supervise Richie's physical education class and in allowing the two students to roam the halls. The school district, the principal, and the physical education teacher moved for dismissal. The trial court treated the motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment under rule 12(c) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Utah R.Civ.P. 12(c); see id. 56(c). It held that these defendants were immune from suit under section 63-30-10(1)(b) of the Utah Governmental Immunity Act. Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-10(1)(b) (1989) (now codified at § 63-30-10(2)).

The Ledforses appealed the trial court's interlocutory order dismissing the school district, but this court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. We found that the order was not final because other defendants and claims remained below and the trial court had not certified the order under rule 54(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. Utah R.Civ.P. 54(b). The trial court later certified the order under rule 54(b), and the Ledforses again appeal. Because the trial court properly certified the order at issue, we now address the merits of the appeal. See generally Kennecott Corp. v. Utah State Tax Comm'n, 814 P.2d 1099 (Utah 1991).

The Ledforses challenge the trial court's ruling on three grounds. They argue, first, that operation of a school is not a governmental function; second, that section 63-30-10(1)(b) should not immunize the government from suit for injuries arising out of a battery committed by a person who is not a government employee; and third, that their cause of action arises not from the battery, but from the government's breach of its duty to supervise and protect minor students in public schools. In essence, the Ledforses assert that it is poor social policy to immunize a school from liability for injuries incurred by students, who are required by law to attend that school, when those injuries result from the school officials' failure to take reasonable steps to protect students from the intentional torts of others.

Before moving to the merits, we note that any negligence action against a governmental entity raises traditional tort questions of duty and breach of duty, as well as independent questions relevant to governmental immunity. In some of our past cases in which we analyzed such a claim against a governmental entity, we have begun with a traditional tort analysis to determine whether the plaintiff had alleged a legally cognizable duty and breach of duty. If the plaintiff had not stated a legally valid tort cause of action, we usually have declined to undertake the immunity analysis. See, e.g., Rollins v. Petersen, 813 P.2d 1156, 1162 (Utah 1991); Owens, 784 P.2d at 1189 n. 2; Ferree, 784 P.2d at 152; see also Beach v. University of Utah, 726 P.2d 413 (Utah 1986). At other times, we have performed the immunity analysis first, typically when it ended the inquiry. See, e.g., Hilton v. Borthick, 791 P.2d 504 (Utah 1989); Birkner v. Salt Lake County, 771 P.2d 1053, 1059 (Utah 1989); Doe v. Arguelles, 716 P.2d 279 (Utah 1985); Connell v. Tooele City, 572 P.2d 697 (Utah 1977); Epting v. State, 546 P.2d 242, 244 (Utah 1976).

Whatever the order in which we address the questions, it is important to keep in mind that a legislative waiver of immunity is not a legislative consent to liability. Even when immunity is waived, there can be no liability absent a breach of a common law duty owed to the plaintiff. See Beach, 726 P.2d at 415-16. Section 63-30-4(1) of the Utah Governmental Immunity Act is explicit on this point. That section states:

Nothing contained in this chapter, unless specifically provided, shall be construed as an admission or denial of liability or responsibility insofar as governmental entities or their employees are concerned. If immunity from suit is waived by this chapter, consent to be sued is granted and liability of the entity shall be determined as if the entity were a private person.

Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-4(1) (1989) (now codified at § 63-30-4(1)(a) & (b)); see also Rollins, 813 P.2d at 1162 n. 3.

In our more recent cases, we have tended to address the traditional tort questions first, for the sake of analytical clarity and of keeping distinct the questions of immunity and liability. However, in the present case, the parties have made it easy for us to decide whether to begin with immunity or duty. They did not brief the issue of the school's common law duty to protect Richie from third persons, a duty that might arise out of the existence of some special relationship between him and the school. See Rollins, 813 P.2d at 1159-62; Owens, 784 P.2d at 1189; Lamarr v. Union State Dep't of Transp., 828 P.2d 535, 538-40 (Utah Ct.App.1992). Consequently, we address only the issue of governmental immunity.

The Utah Governmental Immunity Act requires that we address three questions in determining whether a governmental entity is immune from suit. First, was the activity the entity performed a governmental function and therefore immunized from suit by the general grant of immunity contained in section 63-30-3? Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-3 (1989) (now codified at § 63-30-3(1)). Second, if the activity was a governmental function, has some other section of the Act waived that blanket immunity? Third, if the blanket immunity has been waived, does the Act also contain an exception to that waiver which results in a retention of immunity against the particular claim asserted in this case?

The Ledforses' first argument addresses the first question to be answered in our analytic model: Whether operating a school is a governmental function and therefore is granted governmental immunity under section 63-30-3. Although the Ledforses concede that the majority of states view operation of a school as a governmental function, they nonetheless ask this court to adopt the minority view and hold to the contrary. We decline this invitation.

Whether the operation of a school by a governmental entity is a governmental function is a settled issue in Utah. In 1987, the legislature broadened the definition of "governmental function" in section 63-30-2(4) to include all governmental operations that under our prior case law construing the pre-1987 statutory language, conceivably could have been characterized as ineligible for immunity. Comparing the language in our pre-1987 case law with the language of the 1987 amendment leaves no doubt that our pre-1987 cases were the target of this amendment. Compare Thomas v. Clearfield City, 642 P.2d 737, 738-39 (Utah 1982) and Johnson v. Salt Lake City Corp., 629 P.2d 432, 434 (Utah 1981) and Standiford v. Salt Lake City Corp., 605 P.2d 1230, 1236-37 (Utah 1980) with 1987 Utah Laws ch. 75, § 2 (codified at Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-2(4)(a...

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2 books & journal articles
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