Thompson v. Kaczinski, 08-0647.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtHecht
Citation774 N.W.2d 829
PartiesCharles W. THOMPSON and Karyl J. Thompson, Appellants, v. James F. KACZINSKI and Michelle K. Lockwood, Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 08-0647.,08-0647.
Decision Date13 November 2009
774 N.W.2d 829
Charles W. THOMPSON and Karyl J. Thompson, Appellants,
James F. KACZINSKI and Michelle K. Lockwood, Appellees.
No. 08-0647.
Supreme Court of Iowa.
November 13, 2009.

[774 N.W.2d 831]

Randy V. Hefner and Matthew J. Hemphill of Hefner & Bergkamp, P.C., Adel, for appellants.

Sharon Soorholtz Greer and Melinda G. Young of Cartwright, Druker & Ryden, Marshalltown, for appellees.

HECHT, Justice.

A motorist lost control of his car on a rural gravel road and crashed upon encountering a trampoline that had been displaced by the wind from an adjoining yard to the surface of the road. He and his spouse sued the owners of the trampoline. The district court granted summary judgment, concluding the defendants owed no duty to the motorist under the circumstances and the personal injuries resulting from the crash were not proximately caused by the defendants' alleged negligence. As we conclude the district court erred in granting summary judgment, we reverse and remand this case for trial.

I. Factual and Procedural Background.

James Kaczinski and Michelle Lockwood resided in rural Madison County, near Earlham, on property abutting a gravel road. During the late summer of 2006, they disassembled a trampoline and placed its component parts on their yard approximately thirty-eight feet from the road. Intending to dispose of them at a later time, Kaczinski and Lockwood did not secure the parts in place. A few weeks later, on the night of September 16 and morning of September 17, 2006, a severe thunderstorm moved through the Earlham area. Wind gusts from the storm displaced the top of the trampoline from the yard to the surface of the road.

Later that morning, while driving from one church to another where he served as a pastor, Charles Thompson approached the defendants' property. When he swerved to avoid the obstruction on the road, Thompson lost control of his vehicle.

774 N.W.2d 832

His car entered the ditch and rolled several times. Kaczinski and Lockwood were awakened by Thompson's screams at about 9:40 a.m., shortly after the accident. When they went outside to investigate, they discovered the top of their trampoline lying on the roadway. Lockwood dragged the object back into the yard while Kaczinski assisted Thompson.

Thompson and his wife filed suit, alleging Kaczinski and Lockwood breached statutory and common law duties by negligently allowing the trampoline to obstruct the roadway. Kaczinski and Lockwood moved for summary judgment, contending they owed no duty under the circumstances because the risk of the trampoline's displacement from their yard to the surface of the road was not foreseeable. The district court granted the motion, concluding Kaczinski and Lockwood breached no duty and the damages claimed by the plaintiffs were not proximately caused by the defendants' negligence. The Thompsons appealed. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which affirmed the district court's ruling. We granted the Thompsons' application for further review.

II. Scope of Review.

We review a district court's grant of summary judgment for correction of errors at law. Iowa R.App. P. 6.907; Clinkscales v. Nelson Sec., Inc., 697 N.W.2d 836, 840-41 (Iowa 2005). Summary judgment is appropriate only if there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact" and "the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(3). The party seeking the summary judgment has the burden of proof, and the court considering a motion for summary judgment must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Clinkscales, 697 N.W.2d at 841.

It is well-settled that "questions of negligence or proximate cause are ordinarily for the jury," and "only in exceptional cases should they be decided as a matter of law." Id.; see also Virden v. Betts & Beer Constr. Co., 656 N.W.2d 805, 807 (Iowa 2003) (noting summary judgment is usually inappropriate in negligence cases).

III. Discussion.

A. Iowa Code Section 318.3. The Thompsons contend Kaczinski and Lockwood breached a statutory duty to avoid obstructing a highway right-of-way. See 2006 Iowa Acts ch. 1097, § 3 (codified at Iowa Code § 318.3 (2007)). Section 318.3 provides a person "shall not place, or cause to be placed, an obstruction within any highway right-of-way." An "obstruction" is defined as "an obstacle in the highway right-of-way or an impediment or hindrance which impedes, opposes, or interferes with free passage along the highway right-of-way." Iowa Code § 318.1(4). It is undisputed that the defendants' trampoline was in the road and that the defendants did not intend for the trampoline to be there at the time of the crash. The district court concluded that because the defendants' failure to secure their trampoline and prevent its displacement to the roadway was unintentional, their actions did not violate the statute. The Thompsons contend this was error and that the phrase "cause to be placed" is intended to address acts that unintentionally result in an obstruction of the highway. We disagree.

When a statute or rule is plain and its meaning is clear, the rules of statutory construction do not permit courts to search for meaning beyond its express terms. State v. Snyder, 634 N.W.2d 613, 615 (Iowa 2001). We generally presume words contained in a statute are used in their ordinary and usual sense with the

774 N.W.2d 833

meaning commonly attributed to them. Am. Home Prods. Corp. v. Iowa State Bd. of Tax Review, 302 N.W.2d 140, 143 (Iowa 1981). When not defined in a statute, we construe a term according to its accepted usage. Id. We resort to rules of statutory construction when the explicit terms of a statute are ambiguous. City of Waukee v. City Dev. Bd., 590 N.W.2d 712, 717 (Iowa 1999). Ambiguity is found in a statute "if reasonable minds could differ or be uncertain as to the meaning of the statute." Carolan v. Hill, 553 N.W.2d 882, 887 (Iowa 1996). In this case, reasonable minds could disagree whether the phrase "cause to be placed" addresses only intentional conduct or if conduct resulting in an unintentional obstruction is also covered. Accordingly, we shall apply our well-established rules in interpreting the ambiguous phrase.

Our goal in interpreting a statute is to ascertain legislative intent. Iowa Ass'n of Sch. Bds. v. Iowa Dep't of Educ., 739 N.W.2d 303, 309 (Iowa 2007). In determining legislative intent we consider not only the words used by the legislature, but also the statute's "subject matter, the object sought to be accomplished, the purpose to be served, underlying policies, ... and the consequences of various interpretations." State v. Albrecht, 657 N.W.2d 474, 479 (Iowa 2003). We look to the context in which the ambiguous phrase is used and consider its relationship to associated words and phrases. T & K Roofing Co. v. Iowa Dep't of Educ., 593 N.W.2d 159, 163 (Iowa 1999). We give "a plain, ordinary meaning to words, phrases, and punctuation" and presume "that no part of an act is intended to be superfluous." TLC Home Health Care, L.L.C. v. Iowa Dep't of Human Servs., 638 N.W.2d 708, 713 (Iowa 2002).

The Thompsons contend the prohibition on placing an obstruction addresses intentional conduct while the prohibition on causing to be placed addresses unintentional conduct. They posit that if the statute is not interpreted in this way, the phrase "cause to be placed" is rendered superfluous.

While the Thompsons' reading of the statute is certainly a plausible interpretation, we are not convinced the phrase "cause to be placed" is rendered superfluous if it addresses intentional behavior. Consider the example of two landowners. One landowner builds a fence herself within the highway right-of-way. The other landowner hires a contractor to build a fence in the highway right-of-way. In the first instance, the landowner has placed the obstruction herself, while in the second scenario, she has caused the obstruction to be placed. Both are arguably intentional acts. We conclude the legislature included the phrase "cause to be placed" to prevent a person from avoiding liability by simply hiring someone else to do the "placing."

A review of the entire statutory scheme further convinces us the legislature did not intend to address negligent or unintentional behavior. Iowa Code section 318.12 gives the highway authority the ability to "enforce the provisions of this chapter by appropriate civil or criminal proceeding" or both. Section 318.6 provides any person who places or causes an obstruction to be placed "is deemed to have created a public nuisance punishable as provided in chapter 657." Section 657.3 provides a person found guilty of causing a public nuisance "shall be guilty of an aggravated misdemeanor." We are not inclined to interpret section 318.3 in a way that would result in punishing ordinary negligence as an aggravated misdemeanor—a necessary result of interpreting the statute as the Thompsons urge. Accordingly, we conclude the district court correctly determined that under the facts presented here,

774 N.W.2d 834

section 318.3 does not impose a duty upon Lockwood and Kaczinski to refrain from negligently causing an obstruction to be placed in the right-of-way.

B. Common Law Duty. An actionable claim of negligence requires "`"the existence of a duty to conform to a standard of conduct to protect others, a failure to conform to that standard, proximate cause, and damages."'" Stotts v. Eveleth, 688 N.W.2d 803, 807 (Iowa 2004) (quoting Van Essen v. McCormick Enters. Co., 599 N.W.2d 716, 718 (Iowa 1999)). Plaintiffs contend Kaczinski and Lockwood owed a common law duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent their personal property from obstructing the roadway and to remove their property from the roadway within a reasonable time after it became an obstruction. Whether a duty arises out of a given relationship is a matter of law for the court's determination. Shaw v. Soo Line R.R., ...

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