Lyon v. Burton, No. 950515

Citation5 P.3d 616,2000 UT 19
Decision Date19 January 2000
Docket Number No. 950516., No. 950515
PartiesJohn LYON, individually and as guardian of Matthew J. Lyon, a minor, and Chris Jacob Walker, individually and as guardian for Christopher Michael Walker, a minor, Plaintiffs, Appellants, and Cross-Appellees, v. Glen H. BURTON, Weber Fire District, and Weber County, Defendants, Appellees, and Cross-Appellants.
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

5 P.3d 616
2000 UT 19

John LYON, individually and as guardian of Matthew J. Lyon, a minor, and Chris Jacob Walker, individually and as guardian for Christopher Michael Walker, a minor, Plaintiffs, Appellants, and Cross-Appellees,
Glen H. BURTON, Weber Fire District, and Weber County, Defendants, Appellees, and Cross-Appellants

Nos. 950515, 950516.

Supreme Court of Utah.

January 19, 2000.

Order Modifying Opinion on Denied of Rehearing June 30, 2000.

E. Scott Savage, Salt Lake City, for plaintiffs.

Ray R. Christensen, David C. Richards, Salt Lake City, for Burton and Weber Fire District.

Robert R. Wallace, Salt Lake City, for Weber County.

Gary B. Ferguson, Salt Lake City, for North View Fire Department.

5 P.3d 619
STEWART, Justice


¶ 3 This case arose from the collision of an automobile driven by Chief Glen H. Burton of the Weber Fire District ("District") and an automobile in which Matthew J. Lyon and Christopher M. Walker were riding. Lyon and Walker, both minors, were severely injured and through their fathers, sued Chief Burton and the Weber Fire District. A jury found that defendants Burton and the District were 100 percent at fault in causing the accident and awarded Matthew Lyon $700,000 in general damages and $9,537.79 in special damages, and Christopher Walker $900,000 in general damages and $132,932.39 in special damages.

¶ 4 On the day of the accident, Chief Burton heard a report of a fire in the North View Fire District, which borders the Weber Fire District. After listening to additional reports on the fire's progress, Chief Burton decided to proceed to the fire. En route, he switched his Ford Explorer to "emergency" mode, which entailed turning on the vehicle's emergency lights and siren. Although the Explorer had intentionally not been accoutered to look like an emergency vehicle,1 it was equipped with emergency lights mounted behind the grill, a siren mounted behind the front bumper, and a portable light that could be placed on the dashboard.

¶ 5 While proceeding in emergency mode, Chief Burton entered an intersection against a red light and collided with plaintiffs, who had the green light. He estimated that his speed immediately prior to the accident was from ten to fifteen miles per hour up to thirty-five to forty miles per hour. Both plaintiffs were severely injured. Matthew Lyon sustained a closed head injury for which relatively little medical treatment was required or possible but which resulted in significant and permanent brain damage. Christopher Walker sustained brain damage and also severe physical injuries.

¶ 6 Plaintiffs filed suit against Chief Burton and the District. Prior to trial, defendants moved to dismiss the action against Chief Burton in his individual capacity on the ground that he was acting within the scope of his duties for the District at the time the accident occurred. Thus, defendants argued that suit against Chief Burton was barred under Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-4 (1993)2 of the Governmental Immunity Act (the "Act"), which gives total immunity to government employees for negligence in the course and scope of their employment. The trial court deferred ruling on this motion until after trial, and then granted it.

¶ 7 Both defendants also moved for summary judgment on the ground that the general waiver of governmental immunity for damage caused by negligence under section 63-30-10 was not applicable because subsection (18)(b) of section 63-30-10 retained governmental immunity for fire fighting activities.

5 P.3d 620
Defendants maintained that Chief Burton was engaged in fire fighting activities at the time of the collision. The trial court did not formally deny the motion, but the case proceeded to trial

¶ 8 Following the jury verdicts, the trial court granted defendants' pretrial motion to dismiss Chief Burton as a party defendant and the District's motion to limit the damages award against the District to $250,000 for each plaintiff pursuant to Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-34. The court denied plaintiffs' motions for judgment on the verdicts, prejudgment interest, and costs, but granted their motions for postjudgment interest. Thereafter, the District moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) on the ground that under subsection (18)(b) of section 63-30-10, the District was not liable for negligence in fire fighting activities. The court denied the motion.

¶ 9 Both parties appealed. Plaintiffs appealed (1) the order dismissing Chief Burton pursuant to section 63-30-4; (2) the limitation of their damages to $250,000 each pursuant to section 63-30-34; (3) the denial of prejudgment interest on their special damages under section 78-27-44; and (4) the denial of costs under Rule 54(d) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure. The District cross-appealed the trial court's denial of its motions for summary judgment and j.n.o.v. on the ground that it was entitled to complete immunity for fire fighting activities.


¶ 10 Defendants claim that sections 63-30-3(1) and 63-30-10(18)(b) of the Utah Governmental Immunity Act provide complete immunity in this case. We address this claim first because plaintiffs' other claims are relevant only if the Act does not provide complete immunity. Moreover, some of plaintiffs' claims are based on constitutional challenges, and "`this Court should avoid addressing constitutional issues unless required to do so.'" World Peace Movement of Am. v. Newspaper Agency Corp., 879 P.2d 253, 257 (Utah 1994) (quoting State v. Anderson, 701 P.2d 1099, 1103 (Utah 1985)).

¶ 11 Defendants argue that the trial court erred in denying their motion for summary judgment and in denying the District's motion for j.n.o.v. Both motions were based on the argument that the District is immune from liability because sections 63-30-3(1) and 63-30-10(18)(b) together provide immunity to governmental entities that negligently cause injuries while engaged in "activities of . . . fighting fire." While the legal bases of both motions are the same, the standards by which the trial court is to evaluate the motions are different. Summary judgment "is appropriate only when no genuine issues of material fact exist and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Clyde, 920 P.2d 1183, 1185 (Utah 1996). On the other hand, a motion for j.n.o.v. should be granted only when "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, the evidence is insufficient to support the verdict" as a matter of law. Crookston v. Fire Ins. Exch., 817 P.2d 789, 799 (Utah 1991). We review a trial court decision on both a motion for summary judgment and a motion for j.n.o.v. for correctness. See Johnson v. Redevelopment Agency, 913 P.2d 723, 727 (Utah 1995) (summary judgment); Crookston, 817 P.2d at 799 (j.n.o.v.).

A. Weber Fire District's Liability to Suit under Section 63-30-10 of the Governmental Immunity Act

¶ 12 The District contends that the trial court erred in ruling that it was not immune from suit. Generally, it is appropriate to address liability issues, particularly the issue of whether a defendant owes a plaintiff a duty of due care, prior to addressing the affirmative defense of the defendant's immunity from suit. See, e.g., Ledfors v. Emery County Sch. Dist., 849 P.2d 1162, 1163-64 (Utah 1993); Rollins v. Petersen, 813 P.2d 1156, 1162 (Utah 1991). Here, however, defendants in effect admit that Chief Burton owed a duty of care to plaintiffs and that that duty was breached. For that reason, we proceed directly to the issue of governmental immunity.

¶ 13 Ledfors established a three-step analysis for determining whether a governmental

5 P.3d 621
entity is entitled to immunity under the Act
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(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?

Ledfors, 849 P.2d at 1164.

¶ 14 The first question, therefore, is whether driving an emergency vehicle to a fire is a "governmental function." This inquiry is mandated by section 63-30-3(1), which establishes the general principle of governmental immunity subject to certain exceptions. "Except as may be otherwise provided in this chapter, all governmental entities are immune from any injury which results from the exercise of a governmental function." Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-3(1) (emphasis added). The District qualifies for this blanket grant of immunity if Chief Burton was engaged in a "governmental function" at the time of the accident. See Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-2(4)(a). Under this statutory definition, we conclude that driving an emergency vehicle to the scene of a fire is a "governmental function" and is therefore presumptively cloaked with immunity by section 63-30-3 of the Act.3 Cf. Rollow v. Ogden City, 66 Utah 475, 243 P. 791 (1926) (stating that doctrine of respondeat superior will not apply to municipality acting in governmental capacity like fighting fires).

¶ 15 The second issue under Ledfors is whether the Act provides an exception to that immunity. Section 63-30-10 provides a broad waiver of governmental immunity for negligent acts of an employee committed in the course and scope of employment. "Immunity from suit of all governmental entities is waived for injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of an employee committed within the scope of employment . . . ." Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-10. Given the jury verdict, this waiver applies in this case.

¶ 16 The next question is whether the Act contains an exception to that waiver. Section...

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