Ransom v. City of Garden City

Decision Date24 July 1987
Docket NumberNo. 16430,16430
Citation743 P.2d 70,113 Idaho 202
PartiesSteven Dean RANSOM and Debra Jean Ransom, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF GARDEN CITY, Defendant-Respondent, and Jim Duane Inama and John Austin Bergan, Defendants.
CourtIdaho Supreme Court

Ringert, Clark, Harrington, Reid, Christenson & Kaufman, Boise, for appellants. Michael J. Gaffney argued.

Eberle, Berlin, Kading, Turnbow & Gillespie, Chartered, Boise, for respondent. William A. Fuhrman argued.

DONALDSON, Justice.

The Ransoms appeal a grant of summary judgment in favor of Garden City. The trial court held their action barred by provisions of the Idaho Tort Claims Act.

The pertinent facts are as follows: In the early morning hours of November 9, 1984, a Garden City police officer stopped a vehicle owned and operated by John Bergan. In the vehicle was a passenger, Jim Inama. Bergan was arrested for driving under the influence. Before leaving for the station, Bergan expressed apprehension that his vehicle would be impounded. The officer had concluded that Inama, too, was under the influence, and declared that Inama would not be permitted to operate the motor vehicle. Inama twice attempted to contact friends to retrieve both him and the vehicle, but failed. The officer then removed the vehicle from the roadway to a nearby parking lot. At the request of Bergan, the officer gave the keys to Inama, instructing him not to drive the vehicle, but to pursue calling friends. The police officer departed with Bergan in custody. Later, Inama drove the vehicle in the wrong direction down a one-way boulevard, colliding head-on with the Ransoms. Ransoms brought suit against Bergan, Inama and Garden City; and subsequently, resolved their claims against Inama and Bergan. The action was carried forward against Garden City.

In their complaint, the Ransoms allege that the Garden City police officer was negligent in entrusting the Bergan vehicle keys to Inama. On Garden City's motion for summary judgment, the court, however, ruled that the city was immune from liability because of the "discretionary function" exception to government tort claim liability as set forth in I.C. § 6-904(1). In reaching its decision that the conduct was entitled to immunity, the trial court relied on I.C. § 49-692 which the court read as allowing an officer the option of either impounding the motor vehicle or allowing the owner to arrange for its custody, where feasible. 1 The trial court reasoned that the choice made by the officer between the two alternatives was a "discretionary function" within the meaning of I.C. § 6-904(1).

The Tort Claims Act subjects the state and its political subdivisions to liability for its negligent or otherwise wrongful acts or omissions. See I.C. § 6-903. However, the Act also provides exceptions to liability in I.C. § 6-904. Garden City relies on the so-called "discretionary function" exception to liability which is contained in the second clause of I.C. § 6-904(1):

"6-904. Exceptions to governmental liability.--A governmental entity and its employees while acting within the course and scope of their employment and without malice or criminal intent shall not be liable for any claim which:

"1. Arises out of any act or omission of an employee of the governmental entity exercising ordinary care, in reliance upon or the execution or performance of a statutory or regulatory function, whether or not the statute or regulation be valid, or based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a governmental entity or employee thereof, whether or not the discretion be abused." (Emphasis added.)

The discretionary function exception applies to government decisions entailing planning or policy formation. Sterling v. Bloom, 111 Idaho 211, 723 P.2d 755 (1986). In suits brought under the Tort Claims Act, the "planning/operational" test is used to demarcate decisions involving the formation of basic policy, entitled to immunity, from decisions involving the execution or implementation of that policy, not entitled to immunity. Id., at 232, 723 P.2d at 776.

We emphasized in Sterling that the "planning/operational" test does not necessarily turn upon the status or rank of the actor. Id., at 230, 723 P.2d at 774. See also, Jones v. City of St. Maries, 111 Idaho 733, 736, 727 P.2d 1161, 1164 (1986). Of course, greater rank or authority will most likely coincide with greater responsibility for planning or policy formation decisions; but even the acts of those with the highest rank may result in governmental liability if they are operational. Likewise, those with the least authority may, on occasion, make planning decisions which fall within the ambit of the discretionary function exception.

The court below attached great significance to the fact that the police officer had an opportunity to choose between two alternatives in determining what should be done with the Bergan vehicle. From this, the court concluded that the officer, in choosing to give the keys of the vehicle to the intoxicated passenger, had exercised discretion and, thus, that Garden City was immune from suit under the discretionary function exception. For the reasons stated below, we reverse.

Admittedly, the officer possessed authority "to remove or cause to be removed to the nearest garage or other place of safety" the Bergan vehicle. See I.C. § 49-692. Clearly then, the officer could have disposed of the vehicle in any number of ways. However, the discretionary function exception "does not include functions which involve any element of choice, judgment or ability to make responsible decisions; otherwise every function would fall within the exception." Sterling, supra, 111 Idaho at 227, 723 P.2d at 771 (emphasis in original).

Determining the applicability of the discretionary function exception is a two-step process. First, one must examine the nature and quality of the challenged actions. Id., at 230, 723 P.2d at 774. Routine, everyday matters not requiring evaluation of broad policy factors will more likely than not be "operational." Decisions and actions which involve a consideration of the financial, political, economic and social effects of a given plan or policy will generally be "planning" and fall within the discretionary function exception. See, e.g., Julius Rothschild & Co. v. State, 66 Hawaii 76, 655 P.2d 877, 880-81 (1982) (replacement of major bridge involved evaluation of broad policy factors and was thus within discretionary function exception).

Second, the policies underlying the discretionary function exception must be considered. The policies are twofold: (1) to permit those who govern to do so without being unduly inhibited in the performance of that function by the threat of liability for tortious conduct; and (2) to limit judicial re-examination of basic policy decisions properly entrusted to other branches of government. Johnson v. State, 69 Cal.2d 782, 73 Cal.Rptr. 240, 447 P.2d 352, 358-60 (1968). The Alaska Supreme Court has aptly explained this latter policy:

"The courts will refrain from second-guessing the legislative and executive branches on issues of basic policy. Under our system of separation of powers, such decisions are vested in the politically responsive coordinate branches. Thus, in applying the test for discretionary function immunity ... we will 'isolate those decisions sufficiently sensitive so as to justify judicial abstention.'

"In addition, courts must not intrude into realms of policy exceeding their institutional competence. The judicial branch lacks the fact-finding ability of the legislature, and the special expertise of the executive departments.... [Courts] should not attempt to balance the detailed and competing elements of legislative or executive decisions." Industrial Indem. Co. v. State, 669 P.2d 561, 563 (Alaska 1983) (citations omitted). See also, Julius Rothschild & Co., supra, 655 P.2d at 881.

We turn now to the facts at hand and apply the foregoing two-step process. The activity in question, entrustment of the keys to a motor vehicle to an obviously intoxicated person, was performed by a police officer after a routine stop of a motor vehicle in Garden City. The officer's decision regarding the disposal of the vehicle is one that is undoubtedly made by other officers in the field all the time. It is an everyday matter. The decision is rooted in practicality, and does not require an evaluation of financial, political, economic and social effects. The activity appears to be "operational."

Next, we consider whether officers in the field will be unduly inhibited in disposing of vehicles by the threat of liability for using less than ordinary care. Not insignificantly, the legislature has provided that the defense of public employees shall be undertaken by the governmental entity if the challenged act or omission of the employee is within the course and scope of employment and does not involve malice or criminal intent. I.C. § 6-903(c). Also, when the act or omission is within the scope of employment and does not involve malice or criminal intent, the "governmental entity shall not be entitled to contribution or indemnification, or reimbursement for legal fees and expenses from its employee ..." I.C. § 6-903(d). Finally, there "shall be a rebuttable presumption that any act or omission of an employee within the time and at the place of his employment is within the course and scope of his employment and without malice or criminal intent." I.C. § 6-903(e). These legislative provisions should alleviate any fears that officers might have of being held personally liable for removing a motor vehicle from the public highways to a place of safety pursuant to I.C. § 49-692. We do not believe police officers in the field will be unduly inhibited by the prospect that the governmental entity might eventually bear the financial responsibility for compensating those who...

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