Morris v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co.

Decision Date07 February 1983
Docket NumberNo. 18266,18266
Citation658 P.2d 1199
PartiesCharles D. MORRIS dba Chuck's Enterprises, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. MOUNTAIN STATES TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH COMPANY, Defendant and Respondent.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Anthony M. Thurber, Salt Lake City, for plaintiff and appellant.

Floyd A. Jensen, Salt Lake City, for defendant and respondent.

OAKS, Justice:

This is an action by a customer against the Telephone Company for $40,000 lost profits (plus punitive damages) for omitting a commercial listing from the yellow pages.

In 1975, plaintiff signed a contract with the Telephone Company that expanded his standard business listing by three lines, which plaintiff used to describe his business and the brand names he carried. The contract contained this provision:

In case of error in the advertisement as published, or in case of the omission of all or any part of the advertisement from publication, the Telephone Company's liability, if any, shall be limited to a pro rata abatement of the charge paid to the Telephone Company for such advertisement .... [Emphasis added.]

Because the contract provided that it would be renewed automatically, plaintiff's listing was continued in the yellow pages from year to year until the Telephone Company erroneously omitted the entire listing in its July, 1980 directory.

Relying on the contractual limitation of liability quoted above, the district court granted partial summary judgment for the Telephone Company, limiting its liability to zero for the extra three lines (for which the Telephone Company had not charged the $68.40 annual contract amount) and to $344 for the amount plaintiff had paid for the standard business listing. The Telephone Company thereupon offered to allow judgment against it in the amount of $344 (Utah R.Civ.P. 68(b)), and plaintiff took this appeal from the summary judgment. We affirm.

Plaintiff argues that other contract language, which provides that all of the contract terms "shall remain applicable" to the items of advertising "so long as said items appear in any such issues," means that the contract (including its limitation provision) was inapplicable where the items of advertising were omitted. At the very least, he argues, the quoted provision makes the contract ambiguous, and, quoting from Weaver v. Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Wyo., 609 P.2d 984, 989 (1980), "where there is any doubt about the meaning of a written instrument, there arises an issue of fact to be litigated and summary judgment is inappropriate." But on that point, the Weaver case does not express the law of this state.

The interpretation of a contract is a question of law, to be decided by the judge. O'Hara v. Hall, Utah, 628 P.2d 1289, 1290-91 (1981); Mason v. Commercial Union Assurance Companies, Utah, 626 P.2d 428 (1981); Provo City Corp. v. Nielson Scott Co., Utah, 603 P.2d 803, 805 (1979). It is true that some opinions seem to qualify that rule by implying that it is limited to circumstances where there is no ambiguity or no "room for uncertainty." E.g., Mason, supra, 626 P.2d at 430. And some decisions have reversed summary judgments where the contract was ambiguous and remanded for taking evidence and making findings on the intent of the parties. E.g., West v. West, 15 Utah 2d 87, 91, 387 P.2d 686, 689 (1963).

However, our decisions hold that whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law which the court must decide before it takes any evidence in clarification. Hibdon v. Truck Insurance Exchange, 657 P.2d 1358 (1983); Winegar v. Smith Investment Co., Utah, 590 P.2d 348, 350 (1979). More importantly, our more recent cases hold that even the resolution of contract ambiguities is a question of law for the court. Overson v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., Utah, 587 P.2d 149, 151 (1978); Petty v. Gindy Manufacturing Corp. 17 Utah 2d 32, 36-37, 404 P.2d 30, 33 (1965). Of course, the process of resolving ambiguities will sometimes require the consideration of evidence, and conflicts in evidence will need to be resolved by the trier of fact. Thus, in Universal Investment Co. v. Carpets, Inc., 16 Utah 2d 336, 338-39, 400 P.2d 564, 566 (1965), we held that where it appeared that contract terms had "a particularized application or meaning ... it was proper for the trial court to regard this dispute as an issue of fact and to allow extraneous evidence by experts in this field as to the generally understood and accepted meaning of that language as used in the transaction in question." Similarly, issues of...

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28 cases
  • State v. Vigil
    • United States
    • Utah Court of Appeals
    • 21 Junio 1991
    ...1988) (describing standard of review for administrative determination of mixed questions of law and fact); Morris v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 658 P.2d 1199, 1201 (Utah 1983) (questions of meaning of terms and intent are questions of fact, but determination of whether contract is amb......
  • Projects Unlimited, Inc. v. Copper State Thrift & Loan Co.
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • 6 Septiembre 1990
    ...for disposition by summary judgment. Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law. E.g., Morris v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 658 P.2d 1199, 1200 (Utah 1983). Moreover, the trial court must determine "whether a contract is ambiguous ... before it takes any evidence in clarific......
  • Groen v. Tri-O-Inc.
    • United States
    • Utah Supreme Court
    • 29 Junio 1983
    ...Utah 180, 184, 166 P.2d 536, 538 (1946); see generally Annot., 67 A.L.R.2d 619, 625-26 (1959). Compare Morris v. Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co., Utah, 658 P.2d 1199 (1983), in which we held that the interpretation of an unambiguous written contract was a question of law to be dec......
  • Electronic Sec. Systems Corp. v. Southern Bell Tel. and Tel. Co.
    • United States
    • Florida District Court of Appeals
    • 28 Enero 1986
    ...Affiliated Professional Services v. South Central Bell Telephone Co., 606 S.W.2d 671 (Tenn.1980); Morris v. Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Co., 658 P.2d 1199 (Utah 1983); Allen v. General Telephone Co. of the Northwest, 20 Wash.App. 144, 578 P.2d 1333 (1978). 1 We find no error in ......
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