Normandeau v. Hanson Equipment, Inc.

Decision Date21 July 2009
Docket NumberNo. 20071006.,20071006.
Citation215 P.3d 152,2009 UT 44
PartiesEmily NORMANDEAU, individually and as guardian for Alex Thayne, Jacob Thayn, and Hannah Normandeau, minors; and Lori Normandeau, as guardian for Daniel Normandeau and Melissa Normandeau, minors, on behalf of and for the benefit of the heirs of Dennis Normandeau, deceased. Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. HANSON EQUIPMENT, INC., a corporation; International Truck and Engine Corporation, a corporation; Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, LLC, a limited liability company; General Motors Corporation, a corporation, by and through its Allison Transmission Division; Budget Rent A Car System, Inc., a corporation fka Budget/Ryder TRS; Summit House Fine Furniture, L.L.C., a limited liability company; Dana Corporation, a corporation; and John Does 1-10, Defendants and Petitioner.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Colin P. King, Paul M. Simmons, Tawni J. Anderson, Salt Lake City, for respondents.

Melinda A. Morgan, Zachary E. Peterson, Salt Lake City, for petitioner.

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

PARRISH, Justice:

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 We granted certiorari on the question of whether the district court's denial of a pretrial motion for summary judgment is appealable after the trial has concluded and the jury has rendered its verdict and, if so, whether the party appealing the denial of the motion for summary judgement is required to reraise the basis for the motion during trial in order to preserve it for appeal. Regardless of whether the issue on which summary judgment was denied was reraised during trial, we hold that a party may appeal a denial of a motion for summary judgment so long as the basis for the motion was purely legal. We accordingly reverse the decision of the court of appeals.

FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2 Mr. Normandeau, a tow truck driver, was killed as he prepared a Ryder rental truck for towing. A faulty repair to the truck's hydraulic hose caused torque to build up in the driveline. As a result, when Mr. Normandeau disconnected the driveline in preparation for towing, a portion of the rear differential broke loose and struck his head, killing him instantly. His heirs (the "Normandeaus") sued Hanson Equipment ("Hanson"), the company that had performed repairs to the hydraulic hose shortly before the accident.

¶ 3 Prior to trial, Hanson moved for summary judgment, claiming that it owed no duty to Mr. Normandeau as a matter of law and that its prior repair of the truck was not the proximate cause of Mr. Normandeau's death. At the summary judgment hearing, the Normandeaus argued that the question of duty could be decided as a matter of law, and neither Hanson nor the judge disputed this assertion. Hanson claimed that it was not foreseeable that the built up tension in the driveline would kill a potential tow truck driver. Because there was a question of fact about whether the faulty repair was a foreseeable cause of Mr. Normandeau's death, the district court denied summary judgment. Although the district court was not clear during the summary judgment hearing or in its subsequent written order about whether the foreseeability question went to both duty and proximate cause or just proximate cause, the parties apparently understood that any disputed factual issues went to the question of causation rather than duty.1 At trial, the parties disputed whether Hanson's repair to the truck was a proximate cause of Mr. Normandeau's injuries but did not raise the issue of whether Hanson owed Mr. Normandeau a duty. The jury found for the Normandeaus and assigned Hanson all of the liability.

¶ 4 Hanson appealed the district court's denial of their pretrial summary judgment motion on the issue of duty. The court of appeals held that it could not review the ruling because Hanson did not litigate the issue at trial and failed to make a rule 50(b) motion for directed verdict on the issue. Normandeau v. Hanson Equip. Inc., 2007 UT App 382, ¶¶ 13-14, 174 P.3d 1. The court of appeals explained that it could only review denials of pretrial summary judgment motions in cases where the litigant was foreclosed from raising at trial the basis for the motion. Id. (citing Wayment v. Howard, 2006 UT 56, ¶ 20, 144 P.3d 1147). We have jurisdiction to review the court of appeal's decision pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a) (2008).

ISSUES & STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 5 We granted certiorari to address two questions: (1) whether the court of appeals erred in its construction and application of the rules governing appellate consideration of challenges to denials of summary judgment on direct appeal following entry of final judgment and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in its assessment of the effect of Hanson's failure to explicitly raise the issue of duty of care at trial after denial of its motion for summary judgment on that issue.

¶ 6 "`On certiorari, we review the court of appeals' decision for correctness, focusing on whether that court correctly reviewed the trial court's decision under the appropriate standard of review.'" Pratt v. Nelson, 2007 UT 41, ¶ 12, 164 P.3d 366 (quoting Hansen v. Eyre, 2005 UT 29, ¶ 8, 116 P.3d 290).

ANALYSIS

I. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN HOLDING THAT IT COULD NOT REVIEW THE DISTRICT COURT'S DENIAL OF HANSON'S PRETRIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION

¶ 7 Appellate courts may review the denial of a pretrial summary judgment motion if the motion was decided on purely legal grounds. We previously have held that "[i]n appealing a summary judgment ruling, only facts and legal theories that were foreclosed from being addressed at trial may be heard on appeal." Wayment v. Howard, 2006 UT 56, ¶ 20, 144 P.3d 1147; see also Brown v. Jorgensen, 2006 UT App 168, ¶¶ 19-22, 136 P.3d 1252 (reviewing the pretrial denial of a summary judgment motion based on the court's decision not to strike a supporting affidavit, a legal issue that would be foreclosed from litigation at trial). However, our case law has been less than clear in defining when appellate review of denials of summary judgment motions is precluded. For example, we have sometimes reviewed the denial of a summary judgment motion when the issue raised was not subsequently litigated at trial, even though parties were not explicitly foreclosed from reraising the issue. See Prince, Yeates & Geldzahler v. Young, 2004 UT 26, ¶ 9, 94 P.3d 179 (considering after trial whether the district court erred in denying plaintiff's summary judgment motion on the basis that no contract existed as a matter of law). But we have also held that if a party has "the opportunity to fully litigate the issues raised in the summary judgment motions," we will not review the court's denial of those motions. Wayment, 2006 UT 56, ¶ 19, 144 P.3d 1147.

¶ 8 Given the lack of clarity in our prior case law, we first examine what standard the court of appeals should have applied in determining whether to review the denial of Hanson's summary judgment motion. We then apply the standard to the issue of duty in this case.

A. Appellate Courts May Review Pretrial Denials of Summary Judgment Motions After Final Judgment Has Issued If the District Court Denied Summary Judgment on Purely Legal Grounds

¶ 9 On appeal, we will review a district court's denial of a summary judgment motion when the district court makes a legal ruling based on undisputed facts that do not materially change at trial. See Estate Landscape & Snow Removal Specialists, Inc. v. Mountain States Tel. & Tel. Co., 844 P.2d 322, 326 (Utah 1992). The district court must deny a motion for summary judgment if it finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact that bears on its legal determination or if it finds, as a matter of law based on the undisputed facts, that the moving party is not entitled to a legal ruling in its favor. See Utah R. Civ. P. 56(c). Because district courts are not required to specify the grounds on which they deny a motion for summary judgment, it may be difficult in some cases to ascertain whether the court denied a summary judgement motion based on the existence of a disputed material fact or as a result of a purely legal ruling.

¶ 10 This potential difficulty leads the Normandeaus to argue that this court should abandon our prior rulings allowing us to review pretrial denials of summary judgment in favor of a bright line rule precluding all appellate review of such motions unless they are renewed at the conclusion of trial. Specifically, they argue that by allowing losing parties to appeal pretrial denials of summary judgment motions, appellate courts allow the summary judgment motion to become "a bomb planted within the litigation at its early stages and exploded on appeal." Holley v. Northrop Worldwide Aircraft Servs., Inc., 835 F.2d 1375, 1377 (11th Cir.1988); see also Feiger, Collison & Killmer v. Jones, 926 P.2d 1244, 1249-50 (Colo.1996).

¶ 11 Although some jurisdictions have chosen to implement this bright line rule, others recognize that "[a] critical distinction exists between `summary judgment motions raising the sufficiency of the evidence to create a fact question for the jury and those raising a question of law that the court must decide.'" Wilson v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 56 F.3d 1226, 1229 (10th Cir.1995) (quoting Ruyle v. Cont. Oil Co., 44 F.3d 837, 842 (10th Cir.1994)). For example, in order to prevent parties from challenging summary judgment motions on appeal that were denied due to disputed material facts rather than on purely legal grounds, the Eleventh Circuit will not review the denial of a pretrial summary judgment motion if "(a) by trial the evidence produced by the opposing party was sufficient to be presented to the jury; or (b) by trial the evidence had been supplemented or changed in some manner favorable to the party who opposed summary judgment." Holley, 835 F.2d at 1377-78. This rule comports with our past appellate review of denied summary judgment motions.

¶ 12 In Estate Landscape, we reviewed a...

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