Natrona County v. Blake

Decision Date31 December 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-210.,02-210.
Citation81 P.3d 948,2003 WY 170
PartiesNATRONA COUNTY, Wyoming; Board of County Commissioners of Natrona County, Wyoming; Office of Natrona County Sheriff; and Mark Benton, in his Official Capacity as Natrona County Sheriff, Petitioners, v. Jeffrey A. BLAKE, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Daniel O'Brien, Deceased, Respondent.
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Petitioners: Hoke MacMillan, Wyoming Attorney General; Jay A. Jerde, Senior Assistant Attorney General; and Rick L. Koehmstedt of Schwartz, Bon, Walker & Studer, LLC, Casper, Wyoming. Argument by Messrs. Koehmstedt and Jerde.

Representing Respondent: James E. Fitzgerald of The Fitzgerald Law Firm; and Donald J. Sullivan of Sullivan Law Offices, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Fitzgerald.


HILL, Chief Justice.

[¶ 1] Petitioners, who we will refer to collectively as Natrona County, challenge the district court's order denying their motion to dismiss the wrongful death action filed by Respondent, Jeffery A. Blake (Blake), who is the personal representative of the estate of Daniel O'Brien (O'Brien). On or about September 12, 1999, O'Brien was murdered in Denver, Colorado, by an inmate, Samuel Graumann (Graumann), who escaped from the Natrona County Detention Center (NCDC) on September 10, 1999. Natrona County asserted that it owed no duty to O'Brien and, hence, it was entitled to a ruling that the complaint be dismissed. The district court denied that motion by order entered on September 11, 2002. Natrona County filed a Petition for Writ of Review seeking this Court's consideration of that order.

[¶ 2] Finding the question to be of significant consequence to the expeditious and economical resolution of this matter, we issued the writ on October 15, 2002, in order that the question be brought before us at an early stage of the proceedings. W.R.A.P. 13.02. Argument was heard on this matter, and it was taken under advisement on April 15, 2003. We will affirm the district court's order denying the motion to dismiss.


[¶ 3] Natrona County articulates the issue in this fashion:

Samuel Graumann escaped from the Natrona County Detention Center (NCDC) on September 10, 1999. Approximately two (2) days later. Graumann murdered Daniel O'Brien in Denver, Colorado, approximately 280 miles away from the NCDC. Under these circumstances, did the County Defendants owe a legal duty to Daniel O'Brien to protect him from the intentional criminal acts of Samuel Graumann?

Blake rephrases that issue in these terms:

Did petitioners owe a duty to Daniel O'Brien, an innocent citizen killed by a poorly supervised jail inmate [who] petitioners allowed to escape because they, among other failings, ignored a report that a jailbreak was in progress?

[¶ 4] Natrona County sought dismissal of Blake's claims under W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) and (c):

Rule 12. Defenses and objections; when and how presented; by pleading or motion; motion for judgment on pleadings.
(b) How Presented.—Every defense, in law or fact, to a claim for relief in any pleading, whether a claim, counterclaim, cross-claim, or third-party claim, shall be asserted in the responsive pleading thereto if one is required, except that the following defenses may at the option of the pleader be made by motion: (1) lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter; (2) lack of jurisdiction over the person; (3) improper venue; (4) insufficiency of process; (5) insufficiency of service of process; (6) failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; (7) failure to join a party under Rule 19. A motion making any of these defenses shall be made before pleading if a further pleading is permitted. No defense or objection is waived by being joined with one or more other defenses or objections in a responsive pleading or motion. If a pleading sets forth a claim for relief to which the adverse party is not required to serve a responsive pleading, the adverse party may assert at the trial any defense in law or fact to that claim for relief. If, on a motion asserting the defense numbered (6) to dismiss for failure of the pleading to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, matters outside the pleading are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of as provided in Rule 56, and all parties shall be given reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion by Rule 56.
(c) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. After the pleadings are closed but within such time as not to delay the trial, any party may move for judgment on the pleadings. If, on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of as provided in Rule 56, and all parties shall be given reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion by Rule 56. [Emphasis added.]

[¶ 5] In addressing the issue before us, this Court accepts the facts stated in the complaint as true and views them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Such a dismissal will be sustained only when it is certain from the face of the complaint that the plaintiff cannot assert any facts that would entitle him to relief. Story v. State, 2001 WY 3, ¶ 19, 15 P.3d 1066, ¶ 19 (Wyo. 2001). Dismissal is a drastic remedy and is sparingly granted; nevertheless, we will sustain a W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) dismissal when it is certain from the face of the complaint that the plaintiff cannot assert any set of facts that would entitle that plaintiff to relief. Robinson v. Pacificorp, 10 P.3d 1133, 1135-36 (Wyo.2000); and see Van Riper v. Oedekoven, 2001 WY 58, ¶ 24, 26 P.3d 325, ¶ 24 (Wyo.2001); and Darrar v. Bourke, 910 P.2d 572, 575 (Wyo.1996). For purposes of resolving the issues raised in this appeal, we apply the same standard of review with respect to Rule 12(c) as we do to Rule 12(b)(6). 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 2d § 1369 (1990 and Supp.2003).

[¶ 6] In order to state a claim under a negligence/tort theory, a plaintiff must establish these elements: (1) The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to conform to a specified standard of care, (2) the defendant breached the duty of care, (3) the defendant's breach of the duty of care proximately caused injury to the plaintiff, and (4) the injury sustained by the plaintiff is compensable by money damages. Valance v. VI-Doug, Inc., 2002 WY 113, ¶ 8, 50 P.3d 697, ¶ 8 (Wyo.2002). Further,

"Essential to any negligence cause of action is proof of facts which impose a duty upon defendant. The question of the existence of a duty is a matter of law for the court to decide." Hamilton v. Natrona County Education Ass'n, 901 P.2d 381, 384 (Wyo.1995) (quoting Goodrich v. Seamands, 870 P.2d 1061, 1064 (Wyo.1994)). A duty may arise by contract, statute, common law, or when the relationship of the parties is such that the law imposes an obligation on the defendant to act reasonably for the protection of the plaintiff. Hamilton, 901 P.2d at 384; Goodrich, 870 P.2d at 1064; Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Donahue, 674 P.2d 1276, 1280 (Wyo.1983).

Hulse v. First American Title Company of Crook County, 2001 WY 95, ¶ 36, 33 P.3d 122, ¶ 36 (Wyo.2001); Duncan v. Afton, Inc., 991 P.2d 739, 741-42 (Wyo.1999).

" `[D]uty' is not sacrosanct in itself, but is only an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is entitled to protection." Gates, 719 P.2d at 195; see also W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 54 at 357-58 (5th ed.1984).
When this Court has considered whether a duty should be imposed based on a particular relationship, we have balanced numerous factors to aid in that determination: "(1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, (2) the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, (3) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, (4) the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct, (5) the policy of preventing future harm, (6) the extent of the burden upon the defendant, (7) the consequences to the community and the court system, and (8) the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved." Ortega v. Flaim, 902 P.2d 199, 203, 206 (Wyo.1995) (quoting Mostert v. CBL & Associates, 741 P.2d 1090, 1094 (Wyo.1987), citing to Gates v. Richardson, 719 P.2d 193, 196 (Wyo. 1986), quoting Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, 17 Cal.3d 425, 131 Cal.Rptr. 14, 551 P.2d 334, 342 (1976)). Duncan v. Afton, Inc., 991 P.2d 739, 744 (Wyo.1999) (footnote omitted).

Andersen v. Two Dot Ranch, Inc., 2002 WY 105, ¶ 44, 49 P.3d 1011, ¶ 44 (Wyo.2002).


[¶ 7] Resolution of the issues presented must rely on the well-pleaded factual allegations contained in Blake's amended complaint. At least two of the prisoners who escaped on September 10, 1999, including Graumann, were dangerous criminals who had a history of escaping from incarceration. Graumann and several other prisoners were permitted to go into the exercise yard, having in their possession objects fashioned for the purpose of an escape. It was nighttime and the prisoners were unsupervised. Both NCDC and the prisoners knew that there were blind spots in the video monitoring system for the exercise area. The prisoners gathered in one of the blind spots and remained there for a protracted length of time, unguarded and unmonitored. The prisoners had enough time to attach a heavy rope made of bed sheets to the fenced top of the exercise area. They took turns climbing to the top of the exercise area. They cut a hole through the wire fencing that covered the top of the exercise area that was large enough so that they...

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