Wyo. State Hosp. v. Romine

Decision Date25 March 2021
Docket NumberS-20-0079,S-20-0092
Citation2021 WY 47
PartiesWYOMING STATE HOSPITAL and STATE OF WYOMING, Petitioners, v. MARY ROMINE and DONALD ROMINE, as Guardians and Conservators for and on behalf of Justina Case, their ward, Respondents.
CourtWyoming Supreme Court
Original Proceeding Petition for Writ of Review District Court of Laramie County

The Honorable Steven K. Sharpe, Judge

Representing Appellant:

Bridget Hill, Wyoming Attorney General; Ewa Dawson, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Adrian Kowalski, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Mr. Kowalski.

Representing Appellee:

James E. Fitzgerald and Michael J. Fitzgerald, The Fitzgerald Law Firm, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. James E. Fitzgerald.

Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

KAUTZ, J., delivers the opinion of the Court; DAVIS, C.J., files a specially concurring opinion, in which FOX, J., joins.

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in Pacific Reporter Third. Readers are requested to notify the Clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82002, of any typographical or other formal errors so that correction may be made before final publication in the permanent volume.

KAUTZ, Justice.

[¶1] Justina Case was sexually assaulted by a certified nursing assistant (CNA) while a patient at the Wyoming State Hospital (Hospital). Her parents, Donald and Mary Romine, sued the Hospital1 asserting various claims of negligence under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-39-101 - 120 (LexisNexis 2019) (Claims Act). The district court denied the Hospital's motion for summary judgment, concluding (1) the Hospital had waived its immunity under § 1-39-110; and (2) genuine disputes of material fact existed as to (a) whether the Romines' claims constitute "a single transaction or occurrence" under § 1-39-118 and (b) whether the Hospital's employees proximately caused Ms. Case's injuries. The Hospital challenges these rulings. We affirm in part, and dismiss in part. In doing so, we clarify that an order denying summary judgment on a claim of governmental immunity is appealable only if it involves the purely legal issue of whether the State is immune from suit under the Claims Act.

ISSUES

[¶2] The dispositive issues are:

1. Does this Court have jurisdiction to review the district court's § 1-39-118 and proximate cause decisions?

2. Does § 1-39-110's waiver of governmental immunity apply only to medical malpractice claims?

FACTS

[¶3] Because this appeal involves solely legal issues, we provide only a brief background of the facts for context.

[¶4] On June 2, 2016, Justina Case was involuntarily committed to the Wyoming State Hospital. The Hospital placed her on "Silent Constant Observation," which meant a staff member was to monitor her movements at all times, even when toileting and showering, but was prohibited from engaging in social conversation with her. Starting in July 2016, CNA Christopher King was routinely assigned as Ms. Case's silent constant observer. While acting in this role, Mr. King allegedly sexually assaulted Ms. Case on numerous occasions. According to Ms. Case, the abuse included oral and vaginal sex and occurred while Ms. Case was showering or in a room not monitored by security cameras. Ms. Case reported the abuse to hospital staff on November 11, 2016. The Hospital placed Mr. King on administrative leave and contacted law enforcement. Mr. King eventually pled nocontest to two counts of second-degree sexual assault in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-303(a)(vi) (LexisNexis 2019).

[¶5] The Romines, as Ms. Case's court-appointed conservators and guardians, filed a complaint against the Hospital under §§ 1-39-109 and 1-39-110 of the Claims Act. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Relevant here, the Hospital argued all of the Romines' claims sounded in ordinary negligence. As a result, it contended the claims could not be brought under § 1-39-110 because that statute waived the State's immunity only for medical malpractice claims. While the Hospital did not dispute that the Romines also stated claims under § 1-39-109, it argued damages with respect to those claims were capped at $250,000 under § 1-39-118 because there was only one proximate cause of Ms. Case's injuries—the alleged negligent operation of the hospital. The district court denied the Hospital's motion. It concluded the Hospital had waived its immunity under § 1-39-110 with respect to the negligence of its nurses.2 It also decided genuine disputes of material fact existed as to whether single or multiple occurrences of negligence took place under § 1-39-118 and whether the Hospital's employees proximately caused Ms. Case's injuries.

[¶6] The Hospital filed a notice of appeal or, in the alternative, a petition for writ of review under Rule 13 of the Wyoming Rules of Appellate Procedure (W.R.A.P.). It requested our consideration of two questions, which we quote verbatim:

1. Whether [§ 1-39-110's] waiver of immunity for negligence of health care providers requires proof of medical malpractice or simply ordinary negligence committed by an employee who happens to be a health care provider? [The State asserts that this is a Watts issue and therefore raises this issue through the notice of appeal as well].
2. Whether a claim for negligent hiring, training, retention, and supervision of a single employee can constitute multiple occurrences under [§ 1-39-118] of [the] Claims Act's limitation of maximum liability for "a single occurrence or transaction?" [The State acknowledges this may not be a Watts issue and therefore raise[s] this issue through the petition for the writ of review if it cannot be appealed as of right under Watts].

(Some Brackets in Original). We granted the writ with respect to the first issue, but not the second. Nevertheless, the Hospital raised the second issue in its appellate brief andincluded a third: "Does the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act waive immunity for negligence of public employees that does not serve as the proximate cause of any alleged injuries?"

DISCUSSION
A. Jurisdiction

[¶7] The Hospital wants us to review the district court's § 1-39-118 and proximate cause decisions. Those decisions, however, were made by the district court in denying the Hospital's motion for summary judgment. The denial of a motion for summary judgment is generally not a final appealable order under W.R.A.P. 1.05. State, Dep't of Corr. v. Watts, 2008 WY 19, ¶ 9, 177 P.3d 793, 795 (Wyo. 2008) (citing Gilstrap v. June Eisele Warren Trust, 2005 WY 21, ¶ 7, 106 P.3d 858, 861 (Wyo. 2005), and Wolter v. Equitable Res. Energy Co., 979 P.2d 948, 953 (Wyo. 1999)).

[¶8] An exception to this general rule exists when a district court denies summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. Id. (citing Park Cnty. v. Cooney, 845 P.2d 346, 349 (Wyo. 1992)). The reason for this exception is that "qualified immunity provides 'an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability, and like an absolute immunity, it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.' . . . In other words, unless the order denying [summary judgment] can be reviewed before trial, it can never be effectively reviewed at all, because the defendant will have already suffered an irreparable loss to his immunity from suit." Park Cnty., 845 P.2d at 349 (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2815, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) (emphasis in original)).

[¶9] In Watts we decided the same rationale favoring immediate review of denials of summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds applied to summary judgment denials based on governmental immunity. Watts, ¶ 10, 177 P.3d at 796. We held "an order denying a summary judgment on a claim of governmental immunity is appealable and it is not necessary to grant discretionary review in such circumstances." Id., ¶ 10, 177 P.3d at 796 (emphasis added).

[¶10] We did not explicitly describe in Watts when a denial of summary judgment based "on a claim of governmental immunity" is appealable. However, Watts involved the purely legal issue of whether Mr. Watts' claims fell within the "operation or maintenance of any building" exception to governmental immunity under § 1-39-106. Id., ¶ 5, 177 P.3d at 795. We take the opportunity now to make explicit what was implicit in Watts—interlocutory review of a denial of summary judgment based "on a claim of governmental immunity" is limited to the purely legal issue of whether the State is immune from suit under the Claims Act. As we will explain, this limitation is consistent with our qualified immunity jurisprudence.

[¶11] Under the Claims Act, "immunity is the rule and liability is the exception." Vigil v. Ruettgers, 887 P.2d 521, 524 (Wyo. 1994) (citing Hurst v. State, 698 P.2d 1130, 1132 (Wyo. 1985)). Section 1-39-104(a) provides: "A governmental entity and its public employees while acting within the scope of duties are granted immunity from liability for any tort except as provided by W.S. 1-39-105 through 1-39-112." (emphasis added). The clear language of the Claims Act establishes the legislature intended "immunity from liability" in § 1-39-104(a) to mean immunity from suit, not a defense to liability.

[¶12] "When interpreting the [Claims Act], we apply the following rules of statutory interpretation: Our goal is to give effect to the intent of the legislature, and we 'attempt to determine the legislature's intent based primarily on the plain and ordinary meaning of the words used in the statute.'" Craft v. State ex rel. Wyo. Dep't of Health, 2020 WY 70, ¶ 26, 465 P.3d 395, 402 (Wyo. 2020) (quoting Krenning v. Heart Mountain Irrigation Dist., 2009 WY 11, ¶ 9, 200 P.3d 774, 778 (Wyo. 2009)). "Where legislative intent is discernible a court should give effect to the 'most likely, most reasonable, interpretation of the statute, given its design and purpose.'" Adekale v. State, 2015 WY 30, ¶ 12,...

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