Moss v. Pete Suazo Utah Athletic Com'n

Decision Date21 December 2007
Docket NumberNo. 20060438.,20060438.
Citation175 P.3d 1042,2007 UT 99
PartiesCeleste MOSS, an heir of Bradley A. Rone, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. PETE SUAZO UTAH ATHLETIC COMMISSION, Utah Department of Commerce, and State of Utah, et al., Defendants and Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Mark L. Shurtleff, Att'y Gen., Debra J. Moore, Barry G. Lawrence, Sandra L. Steinvoort, Asst. Att'ys Gen., Salt Lake City, for defendants.

PARRISH, Justice:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 Bradley Rone died during a boxing match. His sister and heir, Celeste Moss, seeks to recover damages from the Pete Suazo Utah Athletic Commission (the "Athletic Commission") for allowing Rone to fight. The question before us is whether the Athletic Commission is immune from such a suit under the Utah Governmental Immunity Act (the "Act"), Utah Code Ann. §§ 63-30-1 to 38 (1997) (repealed and replaced by the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah, id. §§ 63-30d-101 to -904 (2004 & Supp.2007)).1 We conclude that it is. The Athletic Commission's failure to prevent Rone from boxing is a licensing decision that is immune from suit under Utah Code section 63-30-10(3) (1997). We further conclude that this statutory grant of immunity does not violate the open courts clause of the Utah Constitution.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 Rone, a professional boxer, accepted a fight in Cedar City, Utah, in an attempt to raise sufficient funds to purchase an airline ticket to Ohio for the purpose of attending his mother's funeral. Tragically, Hone died in the ring from heart failure and was buried alongside his mother. Moss filed a lawsuit against the Athletic Commission, claiming that her brother's death was caused by the Athletic Commission's negligence in allowing the fight to proceed.2

¶ 3 In support of her negligence claim, Moss alleged that the Athletic Commission 'had violated a number of its own rules. First, the Pete Suazo Utah Athletic Commission Act Rules (the "Athletic Commission Rules") prohibit any boxer who has lost six consecutive fights from fighting until either

the boxing commission has reviewed the fights or the boxer has submitted to a medical examination. Utah Admin. Code r. 151-33-613(8) (2003). Moss alleged that the Athletic Commission failed to review Rone's fights or require that he submit to a medical examination even though he had lost twentysix consecutive fights.

¶ 4 The Athletic Commission Rules also prescribe procedures to be followed in cases where boxing contestants are knocked out or sustain damaging head blows. Specifically, they provide that in cases where a boxing contestant has lost by a technical knockout, the contestant cannot fight again "for a period of 30 calendar days or until the contestant has submitted to a medical examination." Id. r. 151-33-613(1). And in cases where a boxing contestant has been knocked out or received excessive hard blows to the head that rendered him defenseless or incapable of continuing, the Athletic Commission Rules provide that the contestant shall not be permitted to fight for a period of at least sixty days. Id. r. 151-33-613(6). Even then, the contestant cannot resume boxing unless a physician certifies that the contestant is fit to box following a neurological examination. Id. r. 151-33-613(7). Moss alleges that the Athletic Commission violated these rules by allowing Rone to fight without a neurological examination, despite the fact that he had lost a fight by a technical knockout less than two months before.

¶ 5 The Athletic Commission Rules also state that all boxing contestants must be examined by a physician not less than eight hours before a fight and that contestants who are unfit for competition may not compete. Id. r. 151-33-505. Moss alleges that Rone was not examined as required.

¶ 6 Finally, Moss points to Athletic Commission Rule 151-33-613(10), which prohibits a boxer from competing if he has been prohibited from boxing in any other state due to medical reasons. Moss alleges that Nevada had prohibited Rone from boxing for medical reasons but that the Athletic Commission nevertheless allowed the fight to go forward.

¶ 7 The Athletic Commission moved to dismiss Moss's lawsuit under rule 12(b)(6) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that even if all of the allegations contained in the complaint were true, relief would be barred by the Utah Governmental Immunity Act. The district court concurred and granted the motion to dismiss. Moss appealed to this court. We now review the district court's ruling.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 8 In reviewing an order of dismissal entered pursuant to rule 12(b)(6), we "accept the material allegations in the complaint as true and interpret those facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party." Wagner v. State, 2005 UT 54, ¶ 9, 122 P.3d 599 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). We review the grant of a rule 12(b)(6) motion for correctness, ceding no deference to the district court. Oakwood Vill. LLC v. Albertsons, Inc., 2004 UT 101, 119, 104 P.3d 1226.

ANALYSIS

¶ 9 The district court dismissed the complaint after holding that the Athletic Commission was immune from suit pursuant to Utah Code section 63-30-10(3) (1997). Moss argues that the holding was incorrect. In the alternative, Moss argues that if section 63-30-10(3) does shield the Athletic Commission from liability, it violates the, open courts clause of the Utah Constitution. Because we avoid constitutional claims if possible, Lyon v. Burton, 2000 UT 19, ¶ 10, 5 P.3d 616, we address the statutory arguments first and then address the constitutional claim.

I. STATUTORY ANALYSIS

¶ 10 Following the structure of the Utah Governmental Immunity Act, this court has established a three-step analysis to determine whether a government entity is immune from suit for a particular activity:

"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? 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 [the] case?"

Lyon v. Burton 2000 UT 19, ¶ 13, 5 P.3d 616 (citation omitted) (quoting Ledfors v. Emery County Sch. Dist., 849 P.2d 1162, 1164 (Utah 1993)).

¶ 11 We now apply this analysis to Moss's claims against the Athletic Commission. With respect to the first factor, there is no question that the activity of licensing boxers constitutes a governmental function as defined by Utah Code section 63-30-2(4)(a) (1997) and that such activity is therefore immunized from suit by the Act's general grant of immunity. Second, because we accept the material allegations of the complaint as true when reviewing a dismissal under rule 12(b)(6), there is no question that the allegedly negligent conduct of the Athletic Commission is subject to the general waiver of immunity for injury caused by the negligent act or omission of government employees. See id. § 63-30-10. Thus, resolution of the case turns on the third step of the analysis, specifically, whether the Athletic Commission's allegedly negligent acts and omissions fall within any of the statutory exceptions to the general waiver of immunity. See id.

¶ 12 The Athletic Commission argues that it is immune from suit because the actions in question fall within the exception articulated in section 63-30-10(3). That section states that governmental immunity is not waived for "the issuance, denial, suspension, or revocation of or by the failure or refusal to issue, deny, suspend, or revoke any permit, license, certificate, approval, order, or similar authorization." Id. § 63-30-10(3). Moss disagrees.

¶ 13 Moss first argues that section 63-30-10(3) should not be applied to licenses granted for activities that pose a high risk to health or safety. Moss produces no case law, however, that directly supports this proposition, nor has she made any attempt to reconcile her proposed interpretation with the language of the statute. Indeed, Moss's proposed interpretation would place a condition on the applicability of the exception without any textual justification. We decline to stray from the plain meaning of the text where the statute is unambiguous and there is no compelling reason to believe that the legislature has misspoken. Lyon, 2000 UT 19, ¶ 17, 5 P.3d 616 ("`[W]here the statutory language is plain and unambiguous, we do not look beyond, the language's plain meaning " (quoting Horton v. Royal Order of the Sun, 821 P2d 1167, 1168 (Utah 1991))); see also Savage v. Utah Youth Vill., 2004 UT 102, ¶ 18, 104 P.3d 1242 (holding that a statute may be interpreted contrary to its plain meaning only where the plain language "works an absurd result or is unreasonably confused, inoperable, or in blatant contravention of the express purpose of a statute" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). In addition, Moss's proposed interpretation is contrary to a reading of the Immunity Act as a whole, which immunizes many governmental acts or omissions that impact life and safety. See, e.g., Utah Code Ann. § 63-30-10(2) (assault and battery); id. § 63-30-40(7) (riots, mob violence, and civil disturbances); id. § 63-30-10(18) (emergency medical assistance, fire fighting, and regulating hazardous materials).

¶ 14 Moss also argues that the Athletic Commission's duty to prevent Rone from fighting under its regulations was separate from its decision to "issue, deny, suspend, or revoke" his boxing license. As support for this argument, Moss points to the fact that several of the regulations allegedly ignored by the Athletic Commission do not explicitly mention the suspension or revocation of a boxing license but...

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