Taylor v. Schukei Family Trust, 97-205.

Decision Date02 February 2000
Docket NumberNo. 97-205.,97-205.
Citation996 P.2d 13
PartiesRobert and Loretta TAYLOR, Appellants (Plaintiffs), v. SCHUKEI FAMILY TRUST, By and Through Gordon W. SCHUKEI, Gerald D. Schukei, and Carol A. Parish as Trustees, Appellees (Defendants).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Representing Appellants: Todd Hambrick of Krampner, Fuller & Hambrick Attorneys at Law, L.L.C., Casper, Wyoming.

Representing Appellees: Patrick J. Murphy and Stephenson D. Emery of Williams, Porter, Day & Neville, P.C., Casper, Wyoming.

Before LEHMAN, C.J., and THOMAS, MACY, GOLDEN, and TAYLOR,1 JJ.

THOMAS, Justice.

The only issue in this case is whether the Schukei Family Trust (the Trust) owed a duty of care to Robert Taylor, an employee of the Trust's tenant, Schukei, Inc., who was injured by a defective overhead door on the leased premises. The district court entered an Order Granting Summary Judgment to the Trust and its several trustees. The district court relied upon Ortega v. Flaim, 902 P.2d 199 (Wyo.1995), and ruled that the landlord owed no duty to the tenant or the tenant's employees. The district court also held that none of the exceptions to the rule of non-liability listed in Ortega are present in this case. We hold that the lease in this case is susceptible to a construction that the landlord had contracted to repair the premises, resulting in a mixed question of fact and law with respect to the intent of the parties to the lease. That question constitutes a genuine issue of material fact under the circumstances, and the grant of a summary judgment to the landlord was not appropriate. The Order Granting Summary Judgment entered in the district court must be reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

In the Brief of Appellant, filed on behalf of Robert and Loretta Taylor (the Taylors), the issue, a resolution of the issue, and an outline of the reasons for the resolution are articulated in this way:

I. Did the lower court commit reversible error by holding that the landlord (Trust) owed Appellant no duty of care with regards to the overhead door which fell and injured Appellant?
Yes, for the following reasons:
A. Summary Judgment—Questions of Law v. Fact
B. Special Circumstances—Landlord & Tenant Same People
C. Control
D. Contract Between Landlord/Tenant
E. Negligent Repairs

This Statement of the Issue is set forth in the Brief of the Appellee Schukei Family Trust:

Whether, under the circumstances of the case at bar, the landlord owed a commercial tenant's employee a legal duty to protect him from patent defects of the leased premises?

In September of 1993, the Trust acquired a commercial building located at 817 South 4th Street in Douglas. The Trust leases that building to Schukei, Inc., d/b/a Valley Motor Supply (Schukei, Inc.). There is no written agreement between the Trust and Schukei, Inc., but the record demonstrates that pursuant to oral agreement rent is payable monthly in the amount of $750.00 and "[b]y mutual understanding, the Trust is responsible for repairs to the structure, itself, while [Schukei, Inc.] is responsible for interior repairs." More specifically, the Trust is responsible for the "[m]aintenance and repair of the building's overhead doors * * *."

It can be inferred logically that the Trust and Schukei, Inc. were able to conduct the lease transaction in such an informal way because the trustees and the principals of Schukei, Inc. are essentially the same people. The beneficiary of the Trust is the mother of all of the trustees. These siblings also are current or former shareholders and officers in Schukei, Inc., of which the Trust also is a shareholder. The president of Schukei, Inc. is the husband of one of the trustees.

Robert Taylor was employed by Schukei, Inc. in April of 1995, and in June of that year he sustained a serious injury to his shoulder when one of the overhead doors in the building fell on him. Prior to that accident, Robert Taylor, the Trust, and Schukei, Inc. all were aware of the defective condition of the door. The defective condition was the cause of Robert Taylor's injury.

The Taylors brought an action against the Trust on multiple theories of liability. The district court, after authoring a Decision Letter and a Supplemental Decision Letter, granted the Trust's motion for a summary judgment, and the Order Granting Summary Judgment was entered on July 7, 1997. The essence of the justification for the district court's ruling is found in its reliance upon Ortega, 902 P.2d 199 and Hefferin v. Scott Realty Co., 71 Wyo. 114, 254 P.2d 194 (1953). The district court concluded that as a matter of law, under the thrust of these prior cases, the Trust owed no duty to Schukei, Inc. or to Robert Taylor, its employee.

Our jurisprudential rules relative to summary judgment are consistently applied by this Court. A summary judgment is appropriate only when no genuine issues of material fact exist, and the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. W.R.C.P. 56; Century Ready-Mix Co. v. Campbell County School Dist., 816 P.2d 795, 798 (Wyo.1991). When an order granting a summary judgment comes before this Court for review, we examine the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, in this instance the Taylors, and give to that party the benefit of all favorable inferences that fairly may be drawn from the record. Id. at 799 (quoting Doud v. First Interstate Bank of Gillette, 769 P.2d 927, 928 (Wyo.1989)

). Our statement of the facts set forth above is gleaned from the record consistently with those principles.

More recently, we have summarized our standard for the review of summary judgment in this way:

"`When a motion for summary judgment is before the supreme court, we have exactly the same duty as the district judge; and, if there is a complete record before us, we have exactly the same material as did he. We must follow the same standards. The propriety of granting a motion for summary judgment depends upon the correctness of a court's dual findings that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. * * *'" "A summary judgment should only be granted where it is clear that there are no issues of material facts involved and that an inquiry into the facts is unnecessary to clarify the application of law. Johnson v. Soulis, Wyo., 542 P.2d 867 (1975). A material fact is one which has legal significance. Johnson v. Soulis, supra.

It is a fact which would establish a defense. Wood v. Trenchard, Wyo., 550 P.2d 490 (1976). * * *"

Nowotny v. L & B Contract Industries, Inc., 933 P.2d 452, 455 (Wyo.1997) (quoting Thomas By Thomas v. South Cheyenne Water and Sewer Dist., 702 P.2d 1303, 1304 (Wyo.1985)

).

We find no fault with the reliance by the district court upon our decision in Ortega where we held that Wyoming continues to follow the common law rule of landlord immunity from tort liability under most circumstances. We said in deciding that case:

In the landlord and tenant relationship, Wyoming follows the common law rules. Lyden v. Winer, 878 P.2d 516 (Wyo.1994); Mostert v. CBL & Assoc., 741 P.2d 1090, 1099 (Wyo.1987); Medlock v. Van Wagner, 625 P.2d 207, 208 (Wyo.1981); Matter of Estate of Mora, 611 P.2d 842, 847 (Wyo.1980). Under those rules, a landlord owes no greater duty to a tenant's guests than the landlord owes to the tenant himself. Clemmons v. Fidler, 58 Wash.App. 32, 791 P.2d 257, 260 (1990). Generally, that duty is nonexistent since landlords enjoy immunity from tort liability, being one of the few classes of defendants who can invoke caveat emptor.
The common law rule as applied today actually originated during 16th century feudalism when a tenant leased to acquire land. Buildings were simple and their living conditions of little concern to the tenant. Tenants' rights were best protected by the common law view that a landlord's lease to a tenant was a conveyance of the premises for the term of the lease. From that view, the tenant was the owner and occupier subject to all the responsibilities of one in possession and burdened with maintaining the premises in a reasonably safe condition to protect persons who came upon the land. Borders v. Roseberry, 216 Kan. 486, 532 P.2d 1366, 1368-69 (1975). As a general rule, the landlord owed no duty to the tenant or the tenant's guests for dangerous or defective conditions of the premises. Medlock, 625 P.2d at 208; Hefferin v. Scott Realty Co., 71 Wyo. 114, 254 P.2d 194, 197 (1953); and see Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 335, 356 (1965).
Over time, the courts created exceptions to the rule of landlord nonliability, some of which have been recognized in Wyoming:
1. Undisclosed conditions known to lessor and unknown to the lessee which were hidden or latently dangerous and caused an injury. Medlock, 625 P.2d at 208.
2. The premises were leased for public use and a member of the public was injured.
3. Part of the premises was retained under the lessor's control, but was open to the use of the lessee. Lyden, 878 P.2d at 518.
4. Lessor had contracted to repair the premises. Hefferin, 254 P.2d at 197.
5. Negligence by lessor in making repairs. Brubaker v. Glenrock Lodge Int'l Order of Odd Fellows, 526 P.2d 52 (Wyo.1974).
and see Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 356-362 (1965).

Ortega, 902 P.2d at 202 (footnote omitted).

The district court ruled that none of these exceptions to landlord non-liability were applicable in this case. We perceive, however, that Hefferin, 254 P.2d 194, needs to be examined more critically in considering the fourth exception. In that case, we said:

As heretofore stated the lease in this case contained no covenant to repair. It is stated in 32 Am.Jur. § 657, p. 521: "In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the landlord is not obligated to make repairs upon the demised premises during the term either to put the premises in repair or to keep them in such
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