Noel v. City of Rigby, Docket No. 45425

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Writing for the CourtSTEGNER, Justice.
Citation462 P.3d 103,166 Idaho 575
Parties Peter Jacob NOEL and Alisa Ann Noel, husband and wife, individually, and in their capacity as parents and legal guardians of Shaeley Noel, a minor child, Plaintiffs-Respondents-Cross Appellants, v. CITY OF RIGBY, Defendant-Appellant-Cross Respondent.
Decision Date16 April 2020
Docket NumberDocket No. 45425

166 Idaho 575
462 P.3d 103

Peter Jacob NOEL and Alisa Ann Noel, husband and wife, individually, and in their capacity as parents and legal guardians of Shaeley Noel, a minor child, Plaintiffs-Respondents-Cross Appellants,
CITY OF RIGBY, Defendant-Appellant-Cross Respondent.

Docket No. 45425

Supreme Court of Idaho, Pocatello, September 2019 Term.

Opinion Filed: April 16, 2020

Hall Angell & Associates, LLP, Idaho Falls, for defendant-appellant-cross respondent City of Rigby. Blake G. Hall argued.

Murray Ziel & Johnston, PLLC, Idaho Falls, for plaintiffs-respondents-cross appellants Peter, Alisa, and Shaeley Noel. Paul D. Ziel argued.

STEGNER, Justice.

Shaeley Noel (Shaeley), a nine-year-old girl, was seriously injured while playing on playground equipment owned by the City of Rigby (City) and located in the City's South Park. Shaeley and her parents (collectively the Noels) filed suit in district court alleging willful and wanton conduct by the City in the construction and/or maintenance of its playground equipment. The City claims that the park was closed for winter at the time Shaeley was injured. A jury rendered a verdict in favor of the City when it found that the City

462 P.3d 108

did not owe a duty to Shaeley. The Noels filed a motion for a new trial, which the district court granted.

The City appeals the district court's decision to grant a new trial, as well as the district court's decisions to deny the City's motion for a directed verdict and the City's motion to exclude the Noels’ expert witness.

The Noels cross-appeal, alleging several errors by the district court. These purported errors include: (1) rejection of evidence of Shaeley's unadjusted medical bills, (2) prevention of the Noels’ expert witness from testifying regarding the City's purported willful and wanton conduct, (3) allowance of a jury instruction regarding comparative negligence, and (4) admission of evidence regarding the seasonal closure of the park.

For the reasons set out in this opinion, we affirm the following rulings by the district court in which it: (1) denied the City's motion for a directed verdict; (2) granted the Noels’ motion for a new trial; (3) allowed the Noels’ expert to testify as an expert witness; (4) instructed the jury that willful and wanton conduct could be compared with ordinary negligence; and (5) admitted evidence of the park closure. Additionally, we reverse the following rulings by the district court in which it: (1) prevented the Noels from introducing Shaeley's unadjusted medical bills; and (2) precluded the Noels’ expert from testifying that the City engaged in willful and wanton conduct. As a result, we remand the case to the district court for a new trial.


A. Shaeley is injured at the City's park.

Shaeley was injured on playground equipment owned and operated by the City on February 7, 2015. Previously, the City installed a "tube crawl," which it constructed with surplus fiberglass tubes from the Idaho National Lab. Each end of the tube was placed in an H-shaped frame made of pressure-treated wood. However, neither end of the fiberglass tube was bolted to the H-shaped frames. Instead, one end of the fiberglass tube was flared out in a bell-like shape. The City constructed the tube crawl so that one of the support frames was positioned higher than the other frame. The bell-shaped end of the tube was supposed to be placed on the higher-positioned support frame to prevent the tube from slipping off its supporting structure. Evidence presented at trial demonstrated that the tube had been incorrectly positioned—the bell-shaped end was at the lower end rather than the higher end—when Shaeley was seriously injured. The injury occurred because there was nothing preventing the tube from moving when Shaeley was playing on it.

On the day of the accident, Shaeley went to the park with several other children. Ramiro Hernandez (Hernandez), an adult neighbor, accompanied her and the other children to the park. After arriving at the park, Shaeley and the other children began playing on the playground equipment. Shaeley went to climb inside the lower end of one of the tube crawls. As she was climbing in, the tube crawl slid off its frame because it was untethered, causing the top of the tube to hit Shaeley on the back of her head and neck. The tube pulled her head down, causing her legs to flip up into the air. The force of the fall caused her face to scrape violently against the wood of the support frame. Shaeley's neck was caught between the frame and the fiberglass tube, choking her. Hernandez was able to free Shaeley from the tube crawl and call 911.

As a result of the accident, Shaeley's gum tissue had been ripped off her teeth, and she had multiple lacerations to her upper lip. She had several bruises and scrapes on her face, chin, and neck. She underwent surgery to reattach her gum tissue to her teeth and to suture the cuts on her upper lip. In addition, Shaeley attended physical therapy in order to relieve the resulting pain and stiffness in her neck. She continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the time of Shaeley's injuries, South Park was purportedly closed for winter. The evidence elicited at trial indicated the City attempted to limit access of motorized vehicles to protect the park's irrigation system from being damaged during winter months. There were signs posted near some of the vehicle entrances to the park that read, "Park closed for season." In addition, the

462 P.3d 109

gates to the parking area were locked and closed, preventing vehicles from accessing the parking area. However, other park entrances, particularly those accessible to pedestrians, were neither locked nor impeded access. Anyone could easily enter the park by simply following a walking path. A City employee had also seen several people accessing the park during the seasonal closure. However, the employee took no action to advise the park-goers that they were not allowed to be in the park. In addition, the City never implemented the park's closure through any official action, such as a city ordinance.

B. Course of proceedings.

The Noels filed a lawsuit in district court alleging that the City had been willful and wanton in its construction and/or maintenance of the playground equipment. After the Noels rested their case, the City moved for a directed verdict, which the district court denied. Following the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the City. The jury found, in response to the first question on the special verdict form, that the City owed no duty to Shaeley. The jury did not answer any of the remaining questions on the special verdict form as a result of concluding the City did not owe Shaeley a duty.

The Noels filed a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) and a motion for a new trial. The district court denied the motion for JNOV1 but granted the motion for a new trial. The district court found that the clear weight of the evidence did not support the jury's verdict. The City appeals, alleging the district court erred in granting the Noels a new trial in addition to other purported errors. The Noels cross-appeal, alleging the district court erred on several issues during the proceedings.


The standard of review varies for each issue and will be discussed in the relevant subsections below.


A. The district court did not err in denying the City's motion for a directed verdict because the Noels presented sufficient evidence for the case to be submitted to the jury.

The City moved for a directed verdict after the conclusion of the Noels’ case. The City argued both that the Noels had not proven the City owed a duty to Shaeley and that the Noels had not proven the City's action had been willful and wanton. The City focused its argument on what the City "knew or should have known" at the time that Shaeley was injured. The district court denied the motion for a directed verdict, stating,

Frankly, as I see it at this point, we have a -- Mr. Lamoreaux [the City's public works director] testified that the reason the park was closed is because he didn't want people driving on his sprinklers. It had nothing to do with using the park. In fact, the gates were -- the entryway was open to use that stuff. So I don't even think the park was closed, frankly.

But even if it was closed, I think no sane person could think that if you have a walking gate that's wide open right next to where you would pull up to the place, that you couldn't walk in there. If it's closed, then you have a rope across it or something that says, Closed. I mean, I just don't get it. And so I think that issue is -- yeah, I don't see that as an issue that precludes the plaintiffs at this point in time.

Also, the testimony about these tubes. It looks to me like some guy just had an idea that he'd pick up something cheap for the city that would be kind of fun to use, and he threw it up, and he didn't even put a bolt in it. I don't

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