St. Vrain Valley Sch. Dist. Re-1J & Cathy O'Donnell v.

Decision Date19 May 2014
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 12SC631
Citation325 P.3d 1014
PartiesST. VRAIN VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT RE–1J and Cathy O'Donnell, Petitioners, v. A.R.L. a minor, BY AND THROUGH her parents and next friends, Randy LOVELAND and Mary Nicole Loveland; Randy Loveland, individually; and Mary Nicole Loveland, individually, Respondents.
CourtColorado Supreme Court


Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals, Court of Appeals Case No. 11CA1019

Attorneys for Petitioners: Senter Goldfarb & Rice, L.L.C., Gillian M. Fahlsing, Thomas S. Rice, Denver, Colorado

Attorneys for Respondents: Purvis Gray, LLP, Michael J. Thomson, Boulder, Colorado

En Banc

CHIEF JUSTICE RICE delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 We granted certiorari 1 to consider an issue of first impression: whether an injury that occurs on a “zip line” apparatus located on a public school playground fulfills the requirements of the “recreation area waiver,” section 24–10–106(1)(e), C.R.S. (2013), of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (“CGIA”). The recreation area waiver deprives public entities of immunity from tort liability if an injury results from a “dangerous condition of any ... public facility located in any park or recreation area.” § 24–10–106(1)(e). We hold that a collection of playground equipment considered as a whole qualifies as a “public facility” under the recreation area waiver because such playground equipment is (1) relatively permanent or otherwise affixed to the land, (2) a man-made structure, (3) accessible to the public, and (4) maintained by a public entity to serve a beneficial, common public purpose. The court of appeals thus erred when it held that the zip line individually, rather than the playground collectively, constituted a “public facility.”

¶ 2 We also hold that the public facility here, i.e., the collection of playground equipment, was “located in” the “recreation area” of the school playground. Applying the three-step analysis from Daniel v. City of Colorado Springs, 2014 CO 34, ¶ 23, 327 P.3d 891, we determine that the public land underlying the playground equipment is the “putative recreation area,” that the “primary purpose” of that area is recreation, and that the facility where A.R.L. was injured is “located in” this area.

¶ 3 On remand, the trial court should conduct further fact finding to determine whether the Respondents can also fulfill the remaining requirements of the recreation area waiver.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶ 4 In November of 2008, A.R.L., a minor child, was playing on a zip line 2 apparatus during her lunch recess. This zip line was part of her public elementary school's playground, which contained other types of playground equipment.3 While riding the zip line, A.R.L. fell 4 and fractured her wrist. As a result of her injury, the Respondents, Randy Loveland and Mary Nicole Loveland, A.R.L.'s parents, and A.R.L. (collectively the Lovelands), sued the Petitioners, Cathy O'Donnell, the elementary school's principal, and St. Vrain Valley School District RE–1J (collectively the District) in a tort action.

¶ 5 Thereafter, the District filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) (“Motion”), arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because public school districts—and their employees—are immune from liability under the CGIA. See § 24–10–108, C.R.S. (2013) (“Except as provided in sections 24–10–104 to 24–10–106, sovereign immunity shall be a bar to any action against a public entity for injury which lies in tort or could lie in tort ....”); § 24–10–103(5), C.R.S. (2013) (defining a public “school district,” such as the District here, as a “public entity” for the purposes of governmental immunity); § 24–10–103(4)(a) (defining a “public employee,” such as Principal O'Donnell here, for the purposes of governmental immunity). The Lovelands argued, however, that the District was liable for A.R.L.'s injuries because it had waived immunity pursuant to the recreation area waiver. That waiver provides, in relevant part, that a public entity can be held liable for injuries caused by a “dangerous condition of any ... public facility located in any park or recreation area maintained by a public entity.” § 24–10–106(1)(e). Specifically, the Lovelands contended that the zip line qualified as both a “dangerous condition” and a “public facility” and that the zip line was “located in” a “recreation area” because it was located within the school playground.

¶ 6 The trial court granted the District's Motion, finding that the recreation area waiver was wholly inapplicable to the Lovelands' case, because “playground equipment is not a public facility.” 5 The Lovelands then filed an interlocutory appeal pursuant to section 24–10–108.

¶ 7 The court of appeals reversed the trial court's Order granting the District's Motion, holding that the zip line did constitute a “public facility” located in a recreation area pursuant to section 24–10–106(1)(e). Loveland v. St. Vrain Valley Sch. Dist. RE–1J, 2012 COA 112, ¶¶ 19, 22, 328 P.3d 228. In particular, the court of appeals concluded that “public facility” was an ambiguous term, as it was subject to two reasonable, but contradictory, interpretations. Id. at ¶ 15. Specifically, it held that a “public facility” could encompass either (1) larger structures, such as a bricks-and-mortar building, or (2) things other than buildings, such as smaller machinery or equipment. Seeid. Due to this statutory ambiguity, the court of appeals turned to legislative history and concluded that the legislature intended that an individual piece of playground equipment, such as the zip line here, would qualify as a “public facility.” See id. at ¶ 26. Without further analysis, and apparently relying on the parties' stipulations, the court of appeals also noted that the playground where the zip line was located constituted a “recreation area.” Seeid. at ¶ 7. Having found that the “public facility” and “recreation area” requirements of the waiver were met, the court of appeals remanded to the trial court to conduct further proceedings. See id. at ¶ 34.

¶ 8 We granted certiorari review. We now affirm the court of appeals' holding, though on different grounds.

II. Standard of Review

¶ 9 Governmental immunity implicates issues of subject matter jurisdiction that are determined in accordance with C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1). Swieckowski v. City of Ft. Collins, 934 P.2d 1380, 1383–84 (Colo.1997). Where, as here, the facts are undisputed and the issue is one of statutory construction, the trial court's ruling is subject to de novo review. SeeMedina v. State, 35 P.3d 443, 452 (Colo.2001) ([I]f all relevant evidence is presented to the trial court, and the underlying facts are undisputed, the trial court may decide the jurisdictional issue as a matter of law, in which case appellate review is de novo.”).6

III. Analysis

¶ 10 Resolution of this case requires us to construe an undefined provision of the CGIA. In conducting statutory interpretation, our primary task is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent—the polestar of statutory construction. State v. Nieto, 993 P.2d 493, 500, 502 (Colo.2000). We seek to effectuate legislative intent by construing the statute as a whole, giving consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of the statute's parts. Elgin v. Bartlett, 994 P.2d 411, 416 (Colo.1999). When legislative language is unambiguous, we give effect to the statute's plain and ordinary meaning without resorting to other rules of statutory construction. SeeSpringer v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 13 P.3d 794, 799 (Colo.2000).

¶ 11 On the other hand, when we determine that the language of a statute is ambiguous, we may also look to other tools of statutory interpretation to decipher legislative intent. Grant v. People, 48 P.3d 543, 546 (Colo.2002). Often the best guides to legislative intent are the context in which the statutory provisions appear and any accompanying statements of legislative policy, such as a legislative declaration. Stamp v. Vail Corp., 172 P.3d 437, 443 (Colo.2007); see also§ 2–4–203(1), C.R.S. (2013) (noting that when statutory ambiguity exists, a reviewing court may consider, among other things, the object sought to be attained by the statute, the consequences of a particular construction, and the legislative declaration). Additionally, the meaning of an ambiguous statutory term may be ascertained by reference to the meaning of words associated with it. State v. Hartsough, 790 P.2d 836, 838 (Colo.1990).

¶ 12 Before turning to our analysis of A.R.L.'s case, it is helpful to consider the overarching purposes of the CGIA. The law is designed to shield public entities from tort liability, unless the circumstances of an asserted claim bring it within one (or more) of the statute's expressly defined waiver provisions. SeeYoung v. Brighton Sch. Dist. 27J, 2014 CO 32, ¶ 13, 325 P.3d 571 (explaining that although the CGIA generally acts as a “shield” protecting public entities from tort liability, it also “automatically waives this immunity shield in a limited number of situations that are explicitly defined by the statute). Because governmental immunity under the CGIA derogates Colorado's common law, we narrowly construe the CGIA's immunity provisions, and as a logical corollary, we broadly construe the CGIA's waiver provisions. See Springer, 13 P.3d at 798 (discussing the history of this Court's abrogation of Colorado's common law of governmental immunity in 1971, the legislature's subsequent enactment of the CGIA in response to this abrogation, and the rule to broadly construe the CGIA's waiver provisions). Despite this general rule of broad construction, however, our touchstone remains the intent of the legislature. Hartsough, 790 P.2d at 838.

¶ 13 With both the principles of statutory construction and the purposes of the CGIA in mind, we turn to the specific waiver provision that is pertinent to this case—the recreation area waiver outlined in...

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