Tindley v. Salt Lake City School Dist.

Decision Date17 May 2005
Docket NumberNo. 20030581.,20030581.
Citation2005 UT 30,116 P.3d 295
PartiesAndrea TINDLEY, individually; John Sabodski, individually; Andrea Tindley and John Sabodski for the Estate of Eric Sabodski; David Horman, individually; Susan Horman, individually; David and Susan Horman for the Estate of Jeff Horman; Brian Horman, a minor, by and through his natural parents David Horman and Susan Horman; Erin Anderson; and Matt Ehrman, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. SALT LAKE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant and Appellee.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

George Waddoups, Lawrence D. Buhler, Ralph C. Petty, Timothy C. Houpt, Salt Lake City, for plaintiffs.

Mark L. Shurtleff, Att'y Gen., Brent A. Burnett, Barry G. Lawrence, Asst. Att'ys Gen., for defendant.

PARRISH, Justice:

¶ 1 This appeal concerns the constitutionality of section 63-30-34 of the Utah Governmental Immunity Act, which limits the damages recoverable in actions against the state or its political subdivisions.1 Plaintiffs brought this action against the Salt Lake City School District (the "District") asserting that the limitation violates both the Utah and the United States Constitutions. The District successfully moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs appealed. We affirm.


¶ 2 David Smith was employed by the District as a teacher and debate team coach at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Smith selected eight students, including Erin Anderson, Matt Ehrman, Brian and Jeff Horman, and Eric Sabodski, to compete in a debate tournament at the University of Southern California ("USC"). The tournament began on Friday, November 3, 2000, and concluded the following Sunday. Each student competing in the tournament paid a portion of the costs to attend, with the remaining costs paid by funds raised through the high school debate club.

¶ 3 Intending to drive the team to USC, Smith reserved a fifteen-passenger van from a rental agency. When Smith arrived at the rental agency, however, he learned that the van he had reserved was unavailable. Consequently, Smith rented two minivans to transport the students to the competition. District employee and assistant debate team coach Christian Bradley drove one of the vans, while Smith drove the other.

¶ 4 The debate team arrived at USC and participated in both the preliminary and the elimination rounds of the competition. Following the elimination rounds on Sunday afternoon, the team began the return trip to Salt Lake City. Bradley left at approximately 1:00 p.m., driving one of the rented minivans, with Eric, Jeff, Erin, Brian, and Matt as passengers. Smith followed shortly thereafter with the remaining students. Late that evening, while traveling through Millard County, Utah, Bradley lost control of the minivan due to his own negligence. The vehicle flipped several times, ejecting Eric, Jeff, and Erin.

¶ 5 Eric and Jeff were killed in the accident, and the remaining three students were seriously injured. Erin sustained numerous injuries, including a severe traumatic brain injury. Brian's injuries included crushed vertebrae and a fractured hand and foot, and Matt suffered an injury to his knee, as well as multiple contusions and abrasions. It is uncontested that plaintiffs' aggregate damages exceeded $500,000.

¶ 6 Recognizing its liability for Bradley's negligence, the District and its insurer, the Utah State Division of Risk Management, entered into a settlement agreement with plaintiffs Erin, Brian, Matt, and the parents and estates of Eric and Jeff. Under the settlement agreement, the District agreed to pay plaintiffs collectively $500,000, the maximum amount then recoverable under the Utah Governmental Immunity Act. In exchange, plaintiffs agreed to relinquish their rights to pursue any claims against the District or its employees, but reserved the right to challenge the constitutionality of the damage cap imposed by the Governmental Immunity Act.

¶ 7 In accordance with the settlement agreement, plaintiffs filed suit in district court, alleging that the cap violates several provisions of the Utah Constitution, including the open courts clause, as well as the provisions guaranteeing due process, uniform operation of laws, and the right to recover damages for injuries resulting in death. Plaintiffs also alleged that the cap violates the equal protection guarantee of the United States Constitution.

¶ 8 The District filed a motion for summary judgment, urging the district court to reject plaintiffs' constitutional challenges to the cap. Plaintiffs responded with a cross-motion for summary judgment. The district court granted the District's motion for summary judgment, finding the cap constitutional and dismissing plaintiffs' claims with prejudice. This appeal followed.


¶ 9 Historically, the ability to sue the State of Utah or one of its political subdivisions rested on a determination of whether the governmental entity was protected by the common law doctrine of sovereign immunity. That changed in 1965, when the Utah Legislature enacted the Utah Governmental Immunity Act (the "Act"), which barred all causes of action against the state and its political subdivisions unless expressly authorized by statute. Specifically, the Act provided that "all governmental entities," including school districts, "are immune from suit for any injury which results from the exercise of a governmental function." Utah Code Ann. §§ 63-30-2(3), (7), -3(1) (1997 & Supp.2000). Despite its broad grant of immunity, the Act expressly waived immunity for "injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of an employee committed within the scope of employment." Id. § 63-30-10 (1997). Judgments obtained pursuant to this waiver, however, were limited. The Act provided that

if a judgment for damages for personal injury against a governmental entity, or an employee whom a governmental entity has a duty to indemnify, exceeds $250,000 for one person in any one occurrence, or $500,000 for two or more persons in any one occurrence, the court shall reduce the judgment to that amount.

Id. § 63-30-34.

¶ 10 Plaintiffs argue that this statutory limitation on judgments violates article I, section 11 of the Utah Constitution, commonly referred to as the open courts clause. Plaintiffs also argue that the cap violates the due process and uniform operation of laws provisions of the Utah Constitution, as well as the equal protection guarantee of the United States Constitution. Finally, plaintiffs assert that the cap violates article XVI, section 5 of the Utah Constitution, which guarantees the right to recover damages for injuries resulting in death.2

¶ 11 "The issue of `[w]hether a statute is constitutional is a question of law, which we review for correctness, giving no deference to the trial court.'" Grand County v. Emery County, 2002 UT 57, ¶ 6, 52 P.3d 1148 (quoting State v. Daniels, 2002 UT 2, ¶ 30, 40 P.3d 611). Moreover, as this court has recognized, the challenged statute "is presumed constitutional, and we resolve any reasonable doubts in favor of constitutionality." Utah Sch. Bds. Ass'n v. State Bd. of Educ., 2001 UT 2, ¶ 9, 17 P.3d 1125 (internal quotations omitted). Because we conclude that plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that the cap violates either the Utah or the United States Constitution, we affirm the summary judgment entered in favor of the District.


¶ 12 We first address plaintiffs' claim that the cap violates the open courts clause found in article I, section 11 of the Utah Constitution. That provision provides:

All courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done to him in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law, which shall be administered without denial or unnecessary delay; and no person shall be barred from prosecuting or defending before any tribunal in this State, by himself or counsel, any civil cause to which he is a party.

Utah Const. art. I, § 11.

¶ 13 The open courts clause is not merely a procedural protection. Rather, this court has held that the open courts clause provides citizens of Utah the "right to a remedy for an injury." Judd ex rel. Montgomery v. Drezga, 2004 UT 91, ¶ 10, 103 P.3d 135. In Laney v. Fairview City, 2002 UT 79, 57 P.3d 1007, we declared that "the plain meaning of the [open courts clause] `imposes some substantive limitation on the legislature['s ability] to abolish judicial remedies in a capricious fashion.'" Id. at ¶ 30 (quoting Craftsman Builder's Supply, Inc. v. Butler Mfg. Co., 1999 UT 18, ¶ 33, 974 P.2d 1194 (Stewart, J., concurring)). In Berry ex rel. Berry v. Beech Aircraft Corp., 717 P.2d 670 (Utah 1985), we stated that

the basic purpose of Article I, section 11 is to impose some limitation on [the legislature's] power for the benefit of those persons who are injured in their persons, property, or reputations since they are generally isolated in society, belong to no identifiable group, and rarely are able to rally the political process to their aid.

Id. at 676. In other words, the open courts clause provides more than procedural protections; it also secures substantive rights, thereby restricting the legislature's ability to abrogate remedies provided by law.

¶ 14 The District asks us to overrule this interpretation of the open courts clause, first announced in the Berry decision. Under the doctrine of stare decisis, the District assumes the "substantial burden" of convincing us that "the rule was originally erroneous or is no longer sound because of changing conditions and that more good than harm will come by departing from precedent." Laney, 2002 UT 79 at ¶ 45, 57 P.3d 1007 (internal quotations omitted).

¶ 15 We recently have declined similar invitations to overrule the Berry interpretation. For instance, in Laney, we held that Berry was not erroneously decided; rather, its "analytical model . . . was established...

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