Regional Transp. Dist. v. Voss, 93SC591

Decision Date21 February 1995
Docket NumberNo. 93SC591,93SC591
Citation890 P.2d 663
PartiesREGIONAL TRANSPORTATION DISTRICT, Petitioner, v. Janet F. VOSS, Evelyn Stephenson, Arthur Waldinger, and Arthur Waldinger, P.C., Respondents.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Rolf G. Asphaug, Deputy Gen. Counsel, Roger C. Kane, Associate Gen. Counsel, Denver, for petitioner Regional Transp. Dist.

Moss, Morris & O'Dell, P.C., Edward C. Moss, Anne H. Pierson, Englewood, for respondents Janet F. Voss and Evelyn Stephenson.

Hall & Evans, L.L.C., Alan Epstein, Denver, for respondents Arthur Waldinger and Arthur Waldinger, P.C.

Gale A. Norton, Atty. Gen., Raymond T. Slaughter, Chief Deputy Atty. Gen., Timothy M. Tymkovich, Sol. Gen., Simon P. Lipstein, Asst. Atty. Gen., Denver, for amicus curiae State of Colo.

Griffiths & Tanoue, P.C., Tami A. Tanoue, Denver, for amici curiae Colorado Inter-Governmental Risk Sharing Agency and Colorado Counties Casualties and Property Pool.

Geoffrey T. Wilson, David W. Broadwell, Denver, for amicus curiae Colorado Municipal League.

Daniel E. Muse, City Atty., City and County of Denver, John M. Eckhardt, Asst. City Atty., Denver, for amicus curiae City and County of Denver.

Charles H. Richardson, City Atty. Julia A. Bannon, Aurora, for amicus curiae City of Aurora.

Justice KIRSHBAUM delivered the Opinion of the Court.

In Voss v. Regional Transportation District, No. 92CA1206 (Colo.App. July 29, 1993) (not selected for official publication), the court of appeals held that the three-year statute of limitations established by section 13-80-101(1)(j), 6A C.R.S. (1987) (the no-fault limitations statute), for claims arising under the Colorado Automobile Accident Reparations Act (the No-Fault Act), is applicable to a civil action filed by the respondents, Janet F. Voss and Evelyn Stephenson, seeking damages for injuries allegedly sustained in a collision between a car in which they were riding and a bus owned by the petitioner, the Regional Transportation District (the RTD). We granted certiorari to determine whether the no-fault limitations statute or the two-year statute of limitations for actions against governmental and public entities established by section 13-80-102(1)(h), 6A C.R.S. (1987), (the government entity limitations statute), applies to this action. 1 We affirm the court of appeals' judgment.

I

On July 12, 1987, an RTD bus crossed the center line of a street while making a left turn and struck a car stopped at a red light. The respondents, who were occupants of the car, were injured by the impact. 2 They filed a civil action against the RTD and others on February 9, 1990. 3

The complaint alleges, inter alia, that the RTD driver was negligent, that such negligence caused the respondents' injuries, and that the no-fault limitations statute governs this case. The RTD asserted that the suit was barred by the government entity limitations statute. 4 The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of the applicable statute of limitations. The trial court held that the no-fault limitations statute applied on the ground that if two statutes of limitations are arguably applicable, the statute providing the longer period of time governs. 5

The case was tried to a jury in February 1992. At the conclusion of all the evidence, the trial court directed a verdict against the RTD, concluding that the bus driver was negligent as a matter of law and that the RTD must be assumed negligent pursuant to the master-servant doctrine. 6 The jury awarded damages in favor of Voss in the amount of $300,000 and in favor of Stephenson in the amount of $5,000. The trial court reduced Voss's award to $150,000, pursuant to provisions of the Governmental Immunity Act (the Immunity Act) limiting judgment awards against government entities. § 24-10-114(1)(b), 10A C.R.S. (1988). The trial court denied Stephenson's post-trial motion for attorney fees, but ordered the RTD to pay costs in the amount of $1,678 to Stephenson.

The RTD appealed the trial court's judgment, and Stephenson appealed the trial court's denial of her request for attorney fees. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's conclusion that the no-fault limitations statute applied, reversed the trial court's denial of Stephenson's request for attorney fees, and remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of that issue. 7 In reaching its conclusion with respect to the applicable statute of limitations, the court of appeals relied upon Jones v. Cox, 828 P.2d 218 (Colo.1992), and Reider v. Dawson, 856 P.2d 31 (Colo.App.1992), aff'd, 872 P.2d 212 (Colo.1994). 8

II

The RTD argues that the court of appeals erred in determining that the no-fault limitations statute is applicable to the respondents' claims. We disagree.

A

As a preliminary issue, amici, the State of Colorado, Colorado Municipal League, Colorado Inter-governmental Risk Sharing Agency, Colorado Counties Casualty and Property Pool, the City and County of Denver, and the City of Aurora, contend that because the No-Fault Act defines "person" as "every natural person, firm, partnership, association, or corporation," § 10-4-703(10), 4A C.R.S. (1994), the absence of the phrase "governmental entities" from such definition demonstrates an intent by the General Assembly to exclude such entities from the provisions of the No-Fault Act. 9 We disagree.

Prior to 1972, governmental entities enjoyed complete immunity from claims arising from their tortious conduct. See generally Evans v. Board of County Comm'rs, 174 Colo. 97, 482 P.2d 968 (1971). In 1972, the doctrine of sovereign immunity was judicially abrogated. In response, the General Assembly enacted the Immunity Act which statute establishes sovereign immunity for many governmental activities and waives such immunity for certain torts. § 24-10-106(1)(a), 10A C.R.S. (1988); see Bertrand v. Board of County Comm'rs, 872 P.2d 223 (Colo.1994). Section 24-10-106(1)(a) of the Immunity Act provides in pertinent part as follows:

Immunity and partial waiver. (1) A public entity shall be immune from liability in all claims for injury which lie in tort or could lie in tort regardless of whether that may be the type of action or the form of relief chosen by the claimant except as provided otherwise in this section. Sovereign immunity is waived by a public entity in an action for injuries resulting from:

(a) The operation of a motor vehicle, owned or leased by such public entity....

§ 24-10-106(1)(a), 10A C.R.S. (1988). Because the RTD is a public entity, see §§ 32-9-103, 119(1)(a), 13 C.R.S. (1973 & 1994 Supp.), respondents would be prohibited from seeking to recover damages from the RTD in the absence of this statutory waiver of sovereign immunity for actions resulting from the operation of a motor vehicle.

Personal injury claims arising from automobile accidents between private parties are subject to the provisions of the No-Fault Act. Jones, 828 P.2d 218. Because the Immunity Act directs that "liability of a public entity shall be determined in the same manner as if the public entity were a private person[,]" § 24-10-107, 10A C.R.S. (1988), claims by private parties against governmental entities arising from automobile accidents are also generally subject to the provisions of the No-Fault Act. In addition, section 10-4-713(2)(b) of the No-Fault Act contains the following pertinent provisions:

[W]here a motor vehicle accident involves a private passenger motor vehicle or a nonprivate passenger motor vehicle and a motor vehicle owned or operated by the regional transportation district ... the insurer of the private passenger vehicle ... shall not have any cause of action or right of reimbursement for any benefits actually paid by such insurer ... against the regional transportation district or against the user or operator of the regional transportation district motor vehicle.

§ 10-4-713(2)(b), 4A C.R.S. (1994). The inclusion of language expressly referring to the RTD in the No-Fault Act supports the conclusion that the General Assembly intended the No-Fault Act to apply to cases in which the RTD is a party.

B

The RTD argues that the court of appeals failed to consider applicable legislative history or apply established rules of statutory construction in concluding that the no-fault limitations statute governs this case. The RTD further argues that the court of appeals' construction of the statutes of limitations renders the government entity limitations statute a nullity; impermissibly creates an additional implied exception to the government entity limitations statute; and contradicts the principle that a statute of limitations pertaining to classes of defendants is more specific than a statute of limitations pertaining to classes of conduct. We do not agree.

The primary task of a court in construing a statute is to give effect to the intent of the General Assembly. Dawson v. Reider, 872 P.2d 212, 214 (Colo.1994); Jones v. Cox, 828 P.2d 218, 221 (Colo.1992); Woodsmall v. Regional Transp. Dist., 800 P.2d 63, 67 (Colo.1990). Courts must look primarily to the language of the statute and determine the legislative intent by giving effect to the commonly accepted meaning of the words appearing therein. Jones, 828 P.2d at 221; Woodsmall, 800 P.2d at 67. Only if the "statutory text lends itself to alternative constructions" should a court employ alternate means to determine legislative intent. Woodsmall, 800 P.2d at 67; see Griffin v. S.W. Devanney & Co., Inc., 775 P.2d 555, 559 (Colo.1989).

The no-fault limitations statute provides in pertinent part as follows:

General limitation of actions--three years. (1) The following civil actions, regardless of the theory upon which suit is brought, or against whom suit is brought, shall be commenced within three years after the cause of action accrues, and not thereafter:

....

(j) All actions under the "Colorado Auto Accident Reparations Act", part 7 of article 4 of title 10, C.R.S.;

....

§ 13-80-101(...

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