Young v. Brighton Sch. Dist. 27J, Supreme Court Case No. 12SC543

Docket NºSupreme Court Case No. 12SC543
Citation325 P.3d 571
Case DateMay 19, 2014
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

325 P.3d 571

Erin A. YOUNG, individually and on behalf of and as next friend of C.Y.; and C.Y., a minor, through his parent Erin A. Young, Petitioners

Supreme Court Case No. 12SC543

Supreme Court of Colorado.

May 19, 2014

[325 P.3d 574]

Court of Appeals Case No. 11CA1594
Bendinelli Law Firm, PC, Adrian A. Sak, Marc F. Bendinelli, Lain A. Lawrence, Westminster, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioners.

Caplan and Earnest LLC, W. Stuart Stuller, William J. Kowalski, Toni J. Wehman, Boulder, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent.

En Banc

CHIEF JUSTICE RICE delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 We granted certiorari to consider two novel questions of law. First, we examine the interaction between the various waiver provisions in the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (“CGIA”), § 24–10–106(1)(a)–(h), C.R.S. (2013). When successfully applied, these waivers strip public entities of their immunity from tort liability. We hold that the CGIA's waiver provisions are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they provide alternative avenues for exposing a public entity to liability, and more than one waiver may be triggered by a given factual scenario and tested by the trial court. We therefore reverse the court of appeals to the extent it held that the consideration of one CGIA waiver provision affirmatively precludes consideration of any alternative waiver provisions.

¶ 2 Second, we determine whether the “recreation area waiver” provided in section 24–10–106(1)(e), which subjects public entities to liability for injuries resulting from a “dangerous condition of any ... public facility located in any ... recreation area maintained by a public entity,” applies to injuries sustained on a walkway adjacent to a public school playground. We hold that the recreation area waiver's requirements were not met here because the walkway at issue was not itself a “public facility,” nor was it a component of a larger collection of items that qualified as a “public facility.” Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals' holding that the school district retains its immunity, albeit for different reasons.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶ 3 In August of 2008, C.Y., a minor child, slipped and fell in a puddle of water that had accumulated on a concrete walkway at his public elementary school. This walkway was located at the bottom of a set of outdoor steps, a short distance away from the elementary school's exterior cafeteria doors. The walkway ran between both the school playground and the school building. The specific part of the walkway where C.Y. fell immediately abutted a small mulch area next to the school playground.

¶ 4 As a result of his fall, C.Y. sustained a severe head injury, and Petitioners, Erin A. Young, C.Y.' s mother, and C.Y. (collectively “the Youngs”), sued Respondent, Brighton School District 27J (“the District”), asserting a premises liability claim.1 The District then brought a Motion to Dismiss (“Motion”) pursuant to C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), arguing that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the District, a public entity, was immune from liability under the CGIA. See§ 24–10–103(5), C.R.S. (2013) (defining “public entity” in relevant part as a “school district”); § 24–10–108, C.R.S. (2013) (“Except as provided in sections 24–10–104 to 24–10–106, sovereign immunity shall be a bar to any action against a public entity for injury which lies in tort or could lie in tort....”). In response, the Youngs asserted that the District had waived its immunity under the recreation area waiver, section 24–10–106(1)(e).

¶ 5 Without conducting an evidentiary hearing, the trial court considered whether section 24–10–106(1)(d)(III) (“the icy walkway waiver”) applied to C.Y.' s injuries. The icy walkway waiver makes public entities liable for injuries resulting from a “dangerous condition caused by an accumulation of snow and ice ... on walks leading to a public building.” § 24–10–106(1)(d)(III). The trial court found that the icy walkway waiver did not apply because the Youngs did not allege

[325 P.3d 575]

that snow and ice contributed to C.Y.' s injuries.

¶ 6 While the trial court summarily declined to apply the icy walkway waiver, it ordered limited discovery and an evidentiary hearing pursuant to Trinity Broadcasting of Denver, Inc. v. City of Westminster, 848 P.2d 916, 924 (Colo.1993), to determine whether the recreation area waiver applied to C.Y.' s injuries. The recreation area waiver renders public entities liable for injuries resulting from a “dangerous condition of any ... public facility located in any ... recreation area maintained by a public entity.” § 24–10–106(1)(e). At the Trinity hearing, the trial court heard uncontroverted testimony that the walkway where C.Y. fell was adjacent to the playground and that students played on this walkway—at least occasionally—while en route to and from recess.

¶ 7 Relying on the latter testimony, the trial court concluded the walkway at issue qualified as a “recreation area” under section 24–10–106(1)(e) because it was used for recreation, even though it was not formally designated for such purposes. To bolster its conclusion, the trial court noted that to find otherwise “would require the Court to ignore the proclivities of elementary school children.” Further, the trial court concluded that the walkway also qualified as a “public facility,” as it was an integral part of the public school, itself a public facility. In its June 21, 2011 Order (“Order”), the trial court thus concluded that the District had waived its immunity under the recreation area waiver and denied the District's Motion.2

¶ 8 Thereafter, the District filed an interlocutory appeal pursuant to section 24–10–108. A division of the court of appeals unanimously reversed the trial court's Order in an unpublished opinion. Applying the canon of statutory construction that specific statutory language prevails over more general language, the court of appeals held that the icy walkway waiver was the only waiver provision that the trial court should have considered, to the exclusion of all other waivers. In particular, it held that the icy walkway waiver controlled because it was the only waiver provision that dealt specifically with walkways. The court of appeals ultimately concluded, however, that the Youngs did not successfully meet the requirements to waive the District's immunity under the icy walkway waiver, because it was undisputed that a puddle of water, rather than snow and ice, caused C.Y.'s fall. Having determined that the District retained its immunity,3 the court of appeals reversed the trial court's denial of the District's Motion and remanded the case for dismissal of the Youngs' premises liability claim.

¶ 9 Thereafter, the Youngs petitioned this Court for certiorari review of the court of appeals' decision, arguing that the court of appeals erred in declining to analyze whether the recreation area waiver applied to C.Y.' s injuries. We granted certiorari review and affirm in part.

II. Standard of Review

¶ 10 Governmental immunity implicates issues of subject matter jurisdiction that are determined in accordance with C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1). Swieckowski v. City of Ft. Collins, 934 P.2d 1380, 1383–84 (Colo.1997). Under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1), the trial court may allow for limited discovery and conduct an evidentiary hearing to resolve any factual questions that implicate the court's jurisdiction. See id. at 1384 (citing Trinity Broad., 848 P.2d at 924–25). When the jurisdictional facts are undisputed following a Trinity hearing, as here, the trial court's jurisdictional determination is one of law, which we review de novo. See id.; see also

[325 P.3d 576]

City of Colo. Springs v. Conners, 993 P.2d 1167, 1171 (Colo.2000) (noting that whether a trial court has jurisdiction to hear a particular claim under the CGIA is a matter of statutory construction subject to de novo review).

III. Analysis

¶ 11 Resolution of this case requires us to construe various provisions of the CGIA. Our primary task when construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. Springer v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 13 P.3d 794, 799 (Colo.2000); see also State v. Nieto, 993 P.2d 493, 502 (Colo.2000) (“Legislative intent is the polestar of statutory construction.”). We look first to the language of the statute, giving words their plain and ordinary meaning; if the plain language of the statute demonstrates a clear legislative intent, we look no further. Springer, 13 P.3d at 799. A commonly accepted meaning is preferred over a strained or forced interpretation. M.S. v. People, 812 P.2d 632, 636 (Colo.1991). We will not adopt statutory constructions that defeat legislative intent or that lead to unreasonable or absurd results. Nieto, 993 P.2d at 505. Additionally, we read the statutory design as a whole, giving consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of its parts. Id. at 501.

¶ 12 On the other hand, when we determine that the language of a statute is ambiguous, we may also look to other tools of statutory interpretation to decipher legislative intent. Grant v. People, 48 P.3d 543, 547 (Colo.2002). Often the best guides to legislative intent are the context in which the statutory provisions appear and any accompanying statements of legislative policy, such as a legislative declaration. Stamp v. Vail Corp., 172 P.3d 437, 443 (Colo.2007); see also§ 2–4–203(1), C.R.S. (2013) (noting that when statutory ambiguity exists, a reviewing court may consider, among other things, the object sought to be attained, the consequences of a particular construction, and the legislative declaration). Additionally, the meaning of an ambiguous statutory term may be ascertained by reference to the meaning of words associated with it. State v. Hartsough, 790 P.2d 836, 838 (Colo.1990).

¶ 13 Prior to reviewing C.Y.' s claims, it is helpful to consider the purposes of the CGIA. The CGIA acts as a...

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