Smith v. Four Corners Mental Health Center

Decision Date13 May 2003
Docket NumberNo. 20010826.,20010826.
Citation70 P.3d 904,2003 UT 23
PartiesCraig Curtis SMITH, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. FOUR CORNERS MENTAL HEALTH CENTER, INC., a Utah corporation, Larry Randall and Carolyn Randall, and unknown defendants, X, Y, Z, Defendants and Appellees.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

C. Danny Frazier, Roger W. Griffin, Lehi, for plaintiff.

Douglas L. Stowell, Lloyd R. Jones, Price, for defendant Randalls.

Clifford C. Ross, Salt Lake City, for defendant Four Corners.

DURRANT, Associate Chief Justice:

¶ 1 This appeal concerns the liability of a health care provider and foster parents for injuries one foster child inflicted on another foster child. Craig Curtis Smith sued Four Corners Mental Health Center, Inc. ("Four Corners") and his foster parents, Larry and Carolyn Randall, claiming damages for injuries he received when he was purportedly sexually assaulted by another foster child placed with the Randalls. According to Smith, Four Corners' negligence stems from its failure to supervise the Randalls and properly provide foster care services, and the Randalls' negligence stems from their failure to properly supervise Smith's activities with another foster child. Smith claims that these failures by both of the defendants proximately caused his injury. Four Corners and the Randalls filed separate motions for summary judgment. The district court granted both motions, and Smith appeals. We reverse summary judgment as to the Randalls because they failed to assert sufficient facts to support their legal argument, but we affirm summary judgment as to Four Corners because Smith failed to comply with the requirements of the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act ("UHCMA").


¶ 2 "`[I]n reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we view the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'" Young v. Salt Lake City Sch. Dist., 2002 UT 64, ¶ 2, 52 P.3d 1230 (quoting Higgins v. Salt Lake County, 855 P.2d 231, 233 (Utah 1993)). We state the facts of this case accordingly.

¶ 3 On or about January 14, 1992, the Seventh Judicial District Court placed Smith in the custody of the Department of Human Services ("DHS").1 That same day, DHS placed Smith in the home of the Randalls,2 who were licensed, approved, and controlled by DHS as foster parents. In addition to DHS, Four Corners, a Utah corporation providing mental health care and other related services in Carbon and Emery counties, supervised the foster care provided by the Randalls. Shortly afterwards, in February 1992, DHS and Four Corners placed another foster child, J.B., in the Randalls' home. ¶ 4 J.B. and Smith shared a bedroom in the Randalls' home for at least an entire year, during which time the Randalls often left Smith and J.B. together without supervision. Sometime in June 1993, J.B. sexually assaulted Smith.3 Smith attempted to notify the Randalls, caseworkers, and other authorities of the sexual assault, but they failed to adequately discuss Smith's complaints with him.

¶ 5 In March 1994, Smith first told his mother, Traci Pettyjohn, about the sexual assault. On August 14, 1994, Smith and Pettyjohn filed a notice of intent to file a claim directed at both DHS and Four Corners. No claim was filed, however, until November 28, 1998, when Smith, having turned eighteen on January 14, 1998, first brought this claim against DHS, Four Corners, and the Randalls.

¶ 6 In his claim, Smith alleged that the Randalls negligently left Smith and J.B. without sufficient supervision. He also alleged that DHS and Four Corners acted recklessly and with gross negligence in failing to protect Smith from J.B. Smith's complaint alleged that (1) J.B. possessed a violent character and had homosexual tendencies, (2) DHS and Four Corners had actual or constructive knowledge of these tendencies, and (3) they failed to properly protect Smith from injury by inadequately supervising caseworker services provided to the Randalls, Smith, and J.B. and by placing Smith and J.B. in a home together.


¶ 7 At the beginning of January 1999, DHS filed a motion to dismiss, claiming governmental immunity. Smith did not respond to this motion, and on February 5, 1999, the district court granted DHS's motion. In its order dismissing DHS, the district court expressly relied on the arguments in DHS's motion to support its conclusion that DHS was immune from suit.

¶ 8 Over one year later, Four Corners filed a motion for summary judgment on July 27, 2000, arguing that it could not be held liable for Smith's injuries. In its motion, Four Corners maintained, among other things, that it was a health care provider as defined by statute and that Smith had failed to comply with the statutory requirements for timely filing a claim against such providers. The Randalls filed their own motion for summary judgment on October 5, 2000, arguing that they did not breach their duty of care or, in the alternative, that they were immune from suit under either the doctrine of parental immunity or governmental immunity. Responding to the Randalls' motion for summary judgment, Smith submitted the affidavit of his mother, Tracy Morris,4 to show that the defendants knew or should have known of J.B.'s violent and homosexual tendencies. After receiving Smith's response, the Randalls moved to strike certain statements from Tracy Morris's affidavit, arguing that they contained inadmissible hearsay or opinion testimony and unsupported legal conclusions.

¶ 9 At a hearing on all of these motions on June 19, 2001, Smith produced for the first time two want ads purporting to be from Four Corners. Smith introduced these ads to show that Four Corners had actively recruited potential foster parents to house emotionally disturbed children for pay. The district court accepted these ads into evidence after Smith proffered them at oral argument.

¶ 10 Following this hearing, the district court issued a memorandum decision addressing the Randalls' motion to strike and both the Randalls' and Four Corners' motions for summary judgment. In its memorandum decision, the district court first stated that the Randalls' motion to strike "is not well taken" and denied that motion. On Four Corners' motion for summary judgment, the district court concluded "that the lawsuit was not timely filed against Four Corners, as set forth in its arguments" concerning the UHCMA, and granted summary judgment. Concerning the Randalls, the district court held that "the primary determination for granting the Motion for Summary Judgment on behalf of the Randalls [was] the argument made by [DHS] and which has been adopted by this Court previously." Relying on its previous decision to grant DHS's motion and its reasoning for granting summary judgment to Four Corners, the district court also concluded that "the Randalls [were] clothed with the same immunities and statute of limitation protections as [DHS] and [Four Corners]."

¶ 11 On appeal, Smith argues that the district court incorrectly granted summary judgment to both Four Corners and the Randalls. First, he claims that governmental immunity protected neither Four Corners nor the Randalls. Second, he argues that neither defendant could claim protection under the UHCMA. Finally, Smith argues that summary judgment was improper for several procedural reasons including (1) the summary judgment order was deficient, (2) the district court improperly sua sponte incorporated arguments from DHS's motion to dismiss into its summary judgment order, and (3) Four Corners failed to properly answer interrogatories and that had they provided complete answers to these interrogatories he might have been able to establish issues of fact prohibiting the district court from granting summary judgment.

¶ 12 We have jurisdiction to hear this case pursuant to section 78-2-2(3)(j) of the Utah Code. Utah Code Ann. § 78-2-2(3)(j) (2002).


¶ 13 On an appeal of a district court's entry of summary judgment, we apply the same standard as applied by the district court. City Consumer Servs. v. Peters, 815 P.2d 234, 239 (Utah 1991); Durham v. Margetts, 571 P.2d 1332, 1334 (Utah 1977). According to that standard, summary judgment is only appropriate where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Utah R. Civ. P. 56(c). "`When reviewing a court's decision to grant summary judgment, we examine the court's legal conclusions for correctness.'" Young v. Salt Lake City Sch. Dist., 2002 UT 64, ¶ 10, 52 P.3d 1230 (quoting Tustian v. Schriever, 2001 UT 84, ¶ 13, 34 P.3d 755). "If, after a review of the record, it appears that there is a material factual issue, we are compelled to reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment." W. Farm Credit Bank v. Pratt, 860 P.2d 376, 378 (Utah Ct.App.1993) (citing Amica Mut. Ins. Co. v. Schettler, 768 P.2d 950, 957 (Utah Ct.App.1989)).


¶ 14 On appeal, Smith makes several procedural arguments attacking the district court's summary judgment order. Smith argues that, to the extent the district court's order granting summary judgment to both Four Corners and the Randalls rests on the theory of governmental immunity, it is deficient because the district court failed to explain the reasoning supporting its conclusion on this theory. Smith further contends that the district court improperly supported its determination that the defendants5 were entitled to governmental immunity by sua sponte incorporating its ruling regarding DHS's immunity into its order granting summary judgment. In addition, Smith asserts that Four Corners' failure to properly answer interrogatories prevented him from establishing material facts that would have precluded summary judgment based on his failure to comply with the UHCMA. Because these procedural arguments would ultimately be dispositive if...

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