Sullivan v. Scoular Grain Co. of Utah

Citation853 P.2d 877
Decision Date22 April 1993
Docket NumberNo. 910482,910482
CourtSupreme Court of Utah
PartiesKenneth Ray SULLIVAN, Plaintiff, v. SCOULAR GRAIN COMPANY OF UTAH; Union Pacific Railroad Company, a Utah corporation; Scoular Grain Company, The Scoular Company, Robert O'Block, and Gordon Olch, dba Freeport Center Associates; Trackmobile, Inc., a Georgia corporation, formerly known as Whiting Corp.; The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, a Delaware corporation; Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, a Utah corporation; Utah Power & Light Company, a Utah corporation; and G.W. Van Keppel Company, a Missouri corporation, Defendants.

Paul M. Belnap, Victoria K. Kidman, Salt Lake City, for Trackmobile, Inc.

D. Gary Christian, Michael F. Skolnick, Salt Lake City, for G.W. Van Keppel Co.

J. Clare Williams, Salt Lake City, for Oregon Short Line R.R. and Union Pacific R.R.

H. James Clegg, Salt Lake City, for Utah Power and Light.

DURHAM, Justice:

This case comes to us pursuant to rule 41 of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure as a question certified from the United States District Court for the District of Utah. Two issues have been accepted on certification:

1. Under the Utah Comparative Fault Act, 1 Utah Code Annot. § 78-27-38, et seq., can a jury apportion the fault of the plaintiff's employers that caused or contributed to the accident although said employers are immune from suit under Utah Workers' Compensation Act, Utah Code Ann. § 35-1-60, et seq.

2. Under the Utah Comparative Fault Act, Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-38, et seq., can a jury apportion the fault of an individual or entity that has been dismissed from the litigation but against whom it is claimed that they have caused or contributed to the accident. 2

We hold that the purpose and intent of the Utah Liability Reform Act require that a jury account for the relative proportion of fault of a plaintiff's employer that may have caused or contributed to an accident, even though the employer is immune from suit. Apportionment of fault does not of itself subject the employer to civil liability. Rather, the apportionment process merely ensures that no defendant is held liable to any claimant for an amount of damages in excess of the percentage of fault attributable to that defendant.

We also hold that an individual or entity dismissed from a case pursuant to an adjudication on the merits of the liability issue may not be included in the apportionment. 3 When a defendant is dismissed due to a determination of lack of fault as a matter of law, the defendant's exclusion from apportionment does not subject the remaining defendants to liability for damages in excess of their proportionate fault.

The following facts are taken from the federal district court's certification order. In October 1986, plaintiff Kenneth Sullivan lost his left arm and left leg in an accident on the railroad tracks at the Freeport Center in Clearfield, Utah. At the time of his injury, Sullivan was assigned to unload grain from rail cars into warehouses. He was employed by Scoular Grain Company, Freeport Center Associates, and Scoular Grain Company of Utah ("the Scoular parties").

Sullivan filed this action against the Scoular parties, Union Pacific Railroad Company, Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, Utah Power & Light Company, Trackmobile, Inc., and G.W. Van Keppel Company. In 1989, the federal district court found the Scoular parties immune from plaintiff's claim under the exclusive remedy provision of Utah's Workers' Compensation Law and dismissed them from the action. That court also found that defendant Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad had no legal duty to Sullivan Defendant Trackmobile moved to have the jury apportion and compare the fault of all the originally named defendants, whether dismissed or present at trial. Plaintiff opposed this motion, claiming that only the fault of parties who are defendants at trial may be compared.

and dismissed it from the lawsuit. The remaining defendants in the case are Utah Power & Light, Trackmobile, G.W. Van Keppel, Union Pacific Railroad, and Oregon Short Line Railroad. A motion to dismiss Utah Power & Light for lack of jurisdiction is pending at this time.

I. IMMUNE EMPLOYERS
A. Statutory Interpretation

The court's principal duty in interpreting statutes is to determine legislative intent, and the best evidence of legislative intent is the plain language of the statute. Jensen v. Intermountain Health Care, Inc., 679 P.2d 903, 906 (Utah 1984).

Plaintiff argues that his former employers must be excluded from the apportionment process because they are not "defendants" under the Liability Reform Act's definition. Section 68-3-11 of the Utah Code states that "words and phrases ... [which] are defined by statute, are to be construed according to such peculiar and appropriate meaning or definition." Under section 78-27-39 of the Liability Reform Act, a jury may be instructed "to find separate special verdicts determining the total amount of damages sustained and the percentage or proportion of fault attributable to each person seeking recovery and to each defendant." Section 78-27-37(1) defines "defendant" as "any person not immune from suit who is claimed to be liable because of fault to any person seeking recovery." (Emphasis added.) Therefore, plaintiff argues, because the district court found the Scoular parties to be "immune from suit" under the exclusive remedy provision of Utah Workers' Compensation Act, Utah Code Ann. § 35-1-60, they are not defendants and are excluded from apportionment under the plain language of the Act.

Excluding plaintiff's employers from the apportionment process, however, would directly conflict with the language of other sections of the Act which require that no defendant be held liable for damages in excess of its proportion of fault. 4 The relevant portions of sections 78-27-38 and -40 read as follows:

78-27-38. Comparative negligence. The fault of a person seeking recovery shall not alone bar recovery by that person. He may recover from any defendant or group of defendants whose fault exceeds his own. However, no defendant is liable to any person seeking recovery for any amount in excess of the proportion of fault attributable to that defendant.

78-27-40. Amount of liability limited to proportion of fault--No contribution. Subject to Section 78-27-38, the maximum amount for which a defendant may be liable to any person seeking recovery is that percentage or proportion of the damages equivalent to the percentage or proportion of fault attributed to that defendant. No defendant is entitled to contribution from any other person.

(Emphasis added.) If the Scoular parties, who allegedly contributed to the accident, are not included on the special verdict form, the remaining defendants will be potentially liable to plaintiff for an amount in excess of their proportion of fault. For example, if the Scoular parties were 90% at fault and the defendants remaining in the action were 10% at fault, the remaining defendants would be apportioned 100% of any damages awarded even though they were only 10% at fault. 5 Such a result would violate the plain language of sections 78-27-38 and -40.

Thus, we are faced with two arguably contradictory statutes within the same article. Section 78-27-37 defines "defendant" in a way that appears to preclude the inclusion of an employer from apportionment. But excluding employers from apportionment would violate the mandate of section 78-27-40 that no defendant be held liable for damages greater than its proportion of fault. This conflict creates an ambiguity that requires the court to make a policy inference as to the overall purpose and intent of the Act.

B. Legislative History

"When interpreting an ambiguous statute, we first try to discover the underlying intent of the legislature, guided by the purpose of the statute as a whole and the legislative history." Hansen v. Salt Lake County, 794 P.2d 838, 841 (Utah 1990) (citations omitted). We then try to harmonize ambiguous provisions accordingly. Clover v. Snowbird Ski Resort, 808 P.2d 1037, 1045 (Utah 1991).

In the 1986 session of the Utah Legislature, Substitute Senate Bill No. 64 proposed that a jury may determine the "total amount of damages sustained and a percentage or proportion of fault attributable to each person seeking recovery, to each defendant, and to each other person whose fault contributed to the injury or damages." (Emphasis added.) Before being enacted, the bill was amended by deleting the part emphasized above and inserting the word "and" before "to each defendant." The result is codified at Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-39:

The trial court may, and when requested by any party shall, direct the jury, if any, to find separate special verdicts determining the total amount of damages sustained and the percentage or proportion of fault attributable to each person seeking recovery and to each defendant.

Sullivan argues that this amendment shows that the legislature did not intend to include nonparties in the apportionment process.

Trackmobile counters that the reason for the amendment is not clear and argues that, by contrast, the intent of the comparative negligence statute to limit a defendant's liability to his or her proportion of fault is clear. That purpose is to ensure that "no defendant is liable to any person seeking recovery for any amount in excess of the proportion of fault attributable to that defendant." Utah Code Ann. § 78-27-38.

"The primary rule of statutory interpretation is to give effect to the intent of the legislature in light of the purpose the statute was meant to achieve." Reeves v. Gentile, 813 P.2d 111, 115 (Utah 1991) (footnote omitted). Thus, failing to include immune employers in the apportionment violates the main purpose of the Act by...

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