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Regional Transportation District v. Voss

Supreme Court of Colorado. EN BANC CHIEF JUSTICE ROVIRA dissents, and JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in the dissent
Feb 21, 1995
890 P.2d 663 (Colo. 1995)

Summary

In Voss, the supreme court held that the longer statute of limitations "should prevail in a dispute between two equally applicable statutes of limitation because "statutes of limitation are in derogation of a presumptively valid claim.

Summary of this case from Patterson v. BP America Production Co.

Opinion

No. 93SC591

Decided February 21, 1995

Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

JUDGMENT AFFIRMED.

Rolf G. Asphaug, Deputy General Counsel, Roger C. Kane, Associate General Counsel, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Petitioner Regional Transportation District.

Moss, Morris O'Dell, P.C., Edward C. Moss, Anne H. Pierson, Englewood, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondents Janet F. Voss and Evelyn Stephenson.

Hall Evans, L.L.C., Alan Epstein, Denver, Colorado, Attorney for Respondents Arthur Waldinger and Arthur Waldinger, P.C.

Gale A. Norton, Attorney General, Raymond T. Slaughter, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Timothy M. Tymkovich, Solicitor General, Simon P. Lipstein, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae State of Colorado.

Griffiths Tanoue, P.C., Tami A. Tanoue, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Amici Curiae Colorado Inter-Governmental Risk Sharing Agency and Colorado Counties Casualties and Property Pool.

Geoffrey T. Wilson, David W. Broadwell, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae Colorado Municipal League.

Daniel E. Muse, City Attorney, City and County of Denver, John M. Eckhardt, Assistant City Attorney, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae City and County of Denver.

Charles H. Richardson, City Attorney, Julia A. Bannon, Aurora, Colorado, Attorneys for Amicus Curiae City of Aurora.


In Voss v. Regional Transportation District, No. 92CA1206 (Colo.App. July 29, 1993) (not selected for official publication), the court of appeals held that the three-year statute of limitations established by section 13-80-101(1)(j), 6A C.R.S. (1987) (the "no-fault limitations statute"), for claims arising under the Colorado Automobile Accident Reparations Act (the "No-Fault Act"), is applicable to a civil action filed by the respondents, Janet F. Voss and Evelyn Stephenson, seeking damages for injuries allegedly sustained in a collision between a car in which they were riding and a bus owned by the petitioner, the Regional Transportation District (the RTD). We granted certiorari to determine whether the no-fault limitations statute or the two-year statute of limitations for actions against governmental and public entities established by section 13-80-102(1)(h), 6A C.R.S. (1987), (the "government entity limitations statute"), applies to this action. We affirm the court of appeals' judgment.

In its opinion the court of appeals stated that at trial the RTD argued that § 13-80-102(1)(f), the two-year statute of limitations applicable to actions against governmental entities which have procured insurance, barred the respondents' claims. Voss, slip op. at 2. However, the record reflects that at trial the RTD relied solely on the government entity limitations statute, § 13-80-102(1)(h), and that the trial court's judgment was confined to a comparison of that statute with the no-fault limitations statute. Although the RTD's notice of appeal to the court of appeals referred to § 13-80-102(1)(f), its briefs as well as the brief of the respondents were confined to comparisons of the no-fault limitations statute with the government entity limitations statute. In its petition for certiorari the RTD alleged generally that § 13-80-102(1) applied to this case, but the petition and the briefs filed herein by the parties and the amici discuss only whether the no-fault limitations statute or the government entity limitations statute controls this case.

I

On July 12, 1987, an RTD bus crossed the center line of a street while making a left turn and struck a car stopped at a red light. The respondents, who were occupants of the car, were injured by the impact. They filed a civil action against the RTD and others on February 9, 1990.

Voss was the driver of the car; Stephenson was a passenger therein.

Arthur Waldinger and Arthur Waldinger, P.C., were named defendants because in August 1987 Voss and Stephenson retained Waldinger to represent them in this action. Although Waldinger promptly notified the RTD of the respondents' claim pursuant to the requirements of § 24-10-109, 10A C.R.S. (1988), he did not file a complaint within two years from the date of the accident. Respondents alleged alternative counts contending that if their claim against the RTD were barred by the government entity limitations statute, Waldinger committed legal malpractice by not timely filing their complaint.

The complaint alleges, inter alia, that the RTD driver was negligent, that such negligence caused the respondents' injuries, and that the no-fault limitations statute governs this case. The RTD asserted that the suit was barred by the government entity limitations statute. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of the applicable statute of limitations. The trial court held that the no-fault limitations statute applied on the ground that if two statutes of limitations are arguably applicable, the statute providing the longer period of time governs.

The RTD also claimed that the "sudden emergency" doctrine applied. The sudden emergency doctrine provides that "[a] party suddenly confronted with an emergency due to no negligence on his part is not guilty of negligence for an error of judgment when practically instantaneous action is required." Cudney v. Moore, 163 Colo. 30, 32, 428 P.2d 81, 82 (1967). The court found that there was no credible evidence to submit this defense to the jury. This issue has not been appealed.

The trial court also dismissed the respondents' legal malpractice claims.

The case was tried to a jury in February 1992. At the conclusion of all the evidence, the trial court directed a verdict against the RTD, concluding that the bus driver was negligent as a matter of law and that the RTD must be assumed negligent pursuant to the master-servant doctrine. The jury awarded damages in favor of Voss in the amount of $300,000 and in favor of Stephenson in the amount of $5,000. The trial court reduced Voss's award to $150,000, pursuant to provisions of the Governmental Immunity Act (the "Immunity Act") limiting judgment awards against government entities. § 24-10-114(1)(b), 10A C.R.S. (1988). The trial court denied Stephenson's post-trial motion for attorney fees, but ordered the RTD to pay costs in the amount of $1,678 to Stephenson.

The RTD did not appeal this directed verdict.

The RTD appealed the trial court's judgment, and Stephenson appealed the trial court's denial of her request for attorney fees. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's conclusion that the no-fault limitations statute applied, reversed the trial court's denial of Stephenson's request for attorney fees, and remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of that issue. In reaching its conclusion with respect to the applicable statute of limitations, the court of appeals relied upon Jones v. Cox, 828 P.2d 218 (Colo. 1992), and Reider v. Dawson, 856 P.2d 31 (Colo.App. 1992), aff'd, 872 P.2d 212 (Colo. 1994).

Respondents conditionally cross-appealed the dismissal of their malpractice claims. The court of appeals did not reach the issues raised by the respondents' conditional cross-appeal, and those issues are not before us.

At the time it considered this case, the court of appeals did not have the benefit of this court's decision in Dawson v. Reider, 872 P.2d 212 (Colo. 1994).

II

The RTD argues that the court of appeals erred in determining that the no-fault limitations statute is applicable to the respondents' claims. We disagree.

A

As a preliminary issue, amici, the State of Colorado, Colorado Municipal League, Colorado Inter-governmental Risk Sharing Agency, Colorado Counties Casualty and Property Pool, the City and County of Denver, and the City of Aurora, contend that because the No-Fault Act defines "person" as "every natural person, firm, partnership, association, or corporation," § 10-4-703(10), 4A C.R.S. (1994), the absence of the phrase "governmental entities" from such definition demonstrates an intent by the General Assembly to exclude such entities from the provisions of the No-Fault Act. We disagree.

The respondents contend that because this argument was not raised by the parties at any time we cannot consider it. However, we must determine whether the no-fault limitations statute governs here. The argument is germane to that determination. See Cherry Hills Farms v. City of Cherry Hills, 670 P.2d 779, 781-82 (Colo. 1983).

Prior to 1972, governmental entities enjoyed complete immunity from claims arising from their tortious conduct. See generally Evans v. Board of County Comm'rs, 174 Colo. 97, 482 P.2d 968 (1971). In 1972, the doctrine of sovereign immunity was judicially abrogated. In response, the General Assembly enacted the Immunity Act which statute establishes sovereign immunity for many governmental activities and waives such immunity for certain torts. § 24-10-106(1)(a), 10A C.R.S. (1988); see Bertrand v. Board of County Comm'rs, 872 P.2d 223 (Colo. 1994). Section 24-10-106(1)(a) of the Immunity Act provides in pertinent part as follows:

Immunity and partial waiver. (1) A public entity shall be immune from liability in all claims for injury which lie in tort or could lie in tort regardless of whether that may be the type of action or the form of relief chosen by the claimant except as provided otherwise in this section. Sovereign immunity is waived by a public entity in an action for injuries resulting from:

(a) The operation of a motor vehicle, owned or leased by such public entity . . . .

§ 24-10-106(1)(a), 10A C.R.S. (1988). Because the RTD is a public entity, see §§ 32-9-103, 119(1)(a), 13 C.R.S. (1973 1994 Supp.), respondents would be prohibited from seeking to recover damages from the RTD in the absence of this statutory waiver of sovereign immunity for actions resulting from the operation of a motor vehicle.

Personal injury claims arising from automobile accidents between private parties are subject to the provisions of the No-Fault Act. Jones, 828 P.2d 218. Because the Immunity Act directs that "liability of a public entity shall be determined in the same manner as if the public entity were a private person[,]" § 24-10-107, 10A C.R.S. (1988), claims by private parties against governmental entities arising from automobile accidents are also generally subject to the provisions of the No-Fault Act. In addition, section 10-4-713(2)(b) of the No-Fault Act contains the following pertinent provisions:

[W]here a motor vehicle accident involves a private passenger motor vehicle or a nonprivate passenger motor vehicle and a motor vehicle owned or operated by the regional transportation district . . . the insurer of the private passenger vehicle . . . shall not have any cause of action or right of reimbursement for any benefits actually paid by such insurer . . . against the regional transportation district or against the user or operator of the regional transportation district motor vehicle.

§ 10-4-713(2)(b), 4A C.R.S. (1994). The inclusion of language expressly referring to the RTD in the No-Fault Act supports the conclusion that the General Assembly intended the No-Fault Act to apply to cases in which the RTD is a party.

B

The RTD argues that the court of appeals failed to consider applicable legislative history or apply established rules of statutory construction in concluding that the no-fault limitations statute governs this case. The RTD further argues that the court of appeals' construction of the statutes of limitations renders the government entity limitations statute a nullity; impermissibly creates an additional implied exception to the government entity limitations statute; and contradicts the principle that a statute of limitations pertaining to classes of defendants is more specific than a statute of limitations pertaining to classes of conduct. We do not agree.

The primary task of a court in construing a statute is to give effect to the intent of the General Assembly. Reider v. Dawson, 856 P.2d 31 (Colo.App. 1992), aff'd, 872 P.2d 212 at 14 (Colo. 1994); Jones v. Cox, 828 P.2d 218 at 221 (Colo. 1992); Woodsmall v. Regional Transp. Dist., 800 P.2d 63, 67 (Colo. 1990). Courts must look primarily to the language of the statute and determine the legislative intent by giving effect to the commonly accepted meaning of the words appearing therein. Jones, 828 P.2d at 221; Woodsmall, 800 P.2d at 67. Only if the "statutory text lends itself to alternative constructions" should a court employ alternate means to determine legislative intent. Woodsmall, 800 P.2d at 67; see Griffen v. S.W. Delanney Co., Inc., 775 P.2d 555, 559 (Colo. 1989).

The no-fault limitations statute provides in pertinent part as follows:

General limitation of actions — three years. (1) The following civil actions, regardless of the theory upon which suit is brought, or against whom suit is brought, shall be commenced within three years after the cause of action accrues, and not thereafter:

. . . .

(j) All actions under the "Colorado Auto Accident Reparations Act", part 7 of article 4 of title 10, C.R.S.;

. . . .

§ 13-80-101(1)(j), 6A C.R.S. (1987) (emphasis added). The no-fault limitations statute applies to all actions under the No-Fault Act, regardless of the identity of the defendant. See Jones, 828 P.2d at 222-23.

The government entity limitations statute provides in pertinent part as follows:

General limitation of actions — two years. (1) The following civil actions, regardless of the theory upon which suit is brought, or against whom suit is brought, shall be commenced within two years after the cause of action accrues, and not thereafter:

. . . .

(h) All actions against any public or governmental entity or any employee of a public or governmental entity, except as otherwise provided in this section or section 13-80-103.5;

. . . .

§ 13-80-102(1)(h), 6A C.R.S. (1987) (emphasis added). The government entity limitations statute applies to all actions involving governmental entities, regardless of the theory upon which suit is brought.

The words contained in the no-fault limitations statute and in the government entity limitations statute are not ambiguous. However, both statutes arguably are applicable to the circumstances of this case. In fact, the RTD conceded in arguments to this court that an ambiguity exists with respect to the application of the two statutes.

The RTD argues that the purpose of the government entity limitations statute was to provide a uniform statute of limitations period with respect to claims brought against a governmental entity. However, the same reasoning is true for the application of the no-fault limitations statute — the General Assembly intended to provide a uniform limitations period for all actions brought under the No-Fault Act. These arguments illustrate the difficulty in determining which of two statutes of limitations is applicable in this case.

In Jones, we held that the no-fault limitations statute rather than the statute of limitations applicable to tort actions in general established by section 13-80-102(1)(a), 6A C.R.S. (1987), governed a personal injury claim arising from a collision between two privately owned automobiles. Jones, 828 P.2d at 223. In Jones, we relied upon several rules of statutory construction in seeking to determine the intent of the General Assembly.

In Dawson, we considered the application of the no-fault limitations statute to a claim arguably governed by the one-year statute of limitations established by section 13-80-103, 6A C.R.S. (1987), and held that the no-fault limitations statute applied to a claim arising from a collision between an Eagle County Sheriff's vehicle and a pedestrian. We rejected the argument that the one-year statute of limitations applicable to "all actions against sheriffs" established by section 13-80-103 controlled. Dawson, 872 P.2d at 214. In so doing, we stated that, "[a]ssuming that the [respondents] have stated a claim for relief pursuant to the No-Fault Act, both statutes appear to be applicable in this case and the language does not establish which is controlling." Id. at 213.

Our decision in Dawson was guided by the following rules of statutory construction we relied upon in Jones: (1) a later enacted statute should be applied over an earlier enacted statute; (2) the more specific of two applicable statutes should be applied; and (3) the longer of two applicable statutes should be applied. Dawson, 872 P.2d at 214. We also relied upon the legislative history of both statutes of limitations, and the purpose and policy of the No-Fault Act. Id. We find our analysis in Dawson applicable to the issue here posed.

The principle that a later enacted statute controls over an earlier enacted statute is not helpful here. Both the no-fault limitations statute and the government entity limitations statute were enacted in 1986, as part of Senate Bill 69. Ch. 114, sec. 1, § 13-80-101 to -103, 1986 Colo. Sess. Laws 695, 695-97.

The rule of specificity is also not dispositive. The RTD asserts that the government entity limitations statute is more specific than the no-fault limitations statute because a statute of limitations based on the status or class of defendant is "per se" more specific than a statute of limitations based on conduct. This assertion is not persuasive. The cases relied upon by the RTD in support of this argument recognize that ordinarily a more specific statute should be applied rather than a more general statute if both statutes deal with the same or similar subject matter. See Persichini v. Brad Ragan, Inc., 735 P.2d 168, 172-73 (Colo. 1987); Koch v. Stadler, 759 P.2d 792, 793 (Colo.App. 1988); Mohawk Green Apartments v. Kramer, 709 P.2d 955, 957 (Colo.App. 1985). However, in Dawson, we recognized that in "determining which [of two statutes] is controlling by comparing the two statutes is not possible because one is defined in terms of the type of civil action while the other is defined in terms of the class of defendants." Dawson, 872 P.2d at 214. Similarly, in this case the no-fault limitations statute refers to the type of civil action (claims brought under the No-Fault Act), while the government entity limitations statute refers to a class of defendants (governmental entities). In addition, each section is entitled "General limitation of actions," and each section contains the following identical introductory language: "[t]he following civil actions, regardless of the theory upon which suit is brought, or against whom suit is brought, shall be commenced within [two] [three] years after the cause of action accrues, and not thereafter." Compare § 13-80-101(1)(j) with § 13-80-102(1)(h). Therefore, as in Dawson, neither section can be characterized as more specific than the other.

We have recognized that because statutes of limitations are in derogation of a presumptively valid claim, a longer period of limitations should prevail where two statutes are arguably applicable. Dawson, 872 P.2d at 214 (citing Payne v. Ostrus, 50 F.2d 1039, 1042 (8th Cir. 1931) ("Of course if substantial doubt exists, the longer rather than the shorter period of limitation is to be preferred."); O'Malley v. Sims, 75 P.2d 50, 54-55 (Ariz. 1938) ("We have repeatedly held that while the defense of the statute of limitation is a legitimate one, it is not favored by the courts, and, where two constructions are possible, the one which gives the longer period of limitation is the one to be preferred."); Jefferson v. Nero, 280 S.W.2d 884, 886 (Ark. 1955) ("If there is doubt as to which of two or more statutes of limitation applies to a particular action or proceedings, and it is necessary to resolve the doubt, it will generally be resolved in favor of the application of the statute containing the longest limitation."); Thiel v. Taurus Drilling Ltd., 710 P.2d 33, 40 (Mont. 1985) ("Where there is a substantial question as to which of two or more statutes of limitations should apply, the general rule is that the doubt should be resolved in favor of the statute containing the longest limitations.")). Application of this rule to the circumstances of this case supports the conclusion that the no-fault limitations statute is applicable.

C

The RTD contends that the court of appeals failed to harmonize the language of the no-fault limitations statute and the government entity limitations statute and that application of the former statute to this case would render the latter a complete nullity. The RTD further contends that the court of appeals' construction creates an implied exception to the government entity limitations statute, violating the doctrine of expressio unius est exclusio alterius. See Black's Law Dictionary 521 (5th ed. 1979) ("Under this maxim, if [a] statute specifies one exception to a general rule . . . other exceptions or effects are excluded."). We reject these contentions.

In Dawson this court found that the legislative history of sections 13-80-101 and 13-80-103 supported the conclusion that the three-year statute of limitations controlled a tort action commenced pursuant to the No-Fault Act against a sheriff. Dawson, 872 P.2d at 215-16. We pointed out that the co-sponsor of Senate Bill 69 indicated that by referring to "section 13-80-103" in identifying exceptions to the government entity limitations statute the drafters intended the former statute to take priority over the latter. Dawson, 872 P.2d at 216. We noted that no such exception was contained in the no-fault limitations statute, and concluded that had the General Assembly intended to create an exception to the three-year period established therein for suits filed pursuant to the No-Fault Act, it would have done so. Id.

The rationale of Dawson controls here. The No-Fault Act contains no provision exempting civil actions filed thereunder against governmental entities from the no-fault limitations statute. To imply such an exception from legislative silence would be inappropriate in view of our decision in Dawson. Contrary to the RTD's arguments, such construction does not eviscerate the provisions of the government entity limitations statute or create an implied exception thereto; the latter statute governs actions not arising under the No-Fault Act. A contrary construction, however, would do violence to the broad purposes of the No-Fault Act to "avoid inadequate compensation to victims of automobile accidents" and to "require registrants of motor vehicles in this state to procure insurance covering legal liability arising out of ownership or use of such vehicles and also providing benefits to persons injured in accidents involving such vehicles." § 10-4-702, 4A C.R.S. (1994); Dawson, 872 P.2d at 216; Jones, 828 P.2d at 222. The No-Fault Act "is to be liberally construed to further its remedial and beneficent purposes . . . ." Travelers Indem. v. Barnes, 191 Colo. 278, 283, 552 P.2d 300, 304 (1976). In our view, the policies underlying the No-Fault Act support the conclusion that the respondents' claims are among those covered by the no-fault limitations statute. See Dawson, 872 P.2d at 216.

D

Our conclusion that the no-fault limitations statute governs this case is buttressed by what we identified in Jones as "notions of fairness." Jones, 828 P.2d at 223; See § 2-4-201(1)(c), 1B C.R.S. (1980) ("In enacting a statute, it is presumed that . . . a just and reasonable result is intended."). In Jones, we noted that application of the general two-year statute of limitations "would have the effect of prohibiting an insured . . . from filing suit unless she meets the requirements of the [No-Fault Act], while at the same time denying [the insured] the benefits of the Act's special statute of limitation. In light of the legislative purpose of fully compensating the victim, this result seems incongruous and contrary to legislative intent." Jones, 828 P.2d at 222. In this case the respondents timely notified the RTD of their injuries and of their intent to commence civil proceedings against it. The RTD thus had ample time to prepare to defend itself. Although the respondents' civil action was filed more than two years after they discovered their injuries, the RTD has not suggested that in this case it was prejudiced. In our view, the "notions of fairness" referred to in Jones, compel a similar result here.

III

For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROVIRA dissents, and JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in the dissent.


Summaries of

Regional Transportation District v. Voss

Supreme Court of Colorado. EN BANC CHIEF JUSTICE ROVIRA dissents, and JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in the dissent
Feb 21, 1995
890 P.2d 663 (Colo. 1995)

In Voss, the supreme court held that the longer statute of limitations "should prevail in a dispute between two equally applicable statutes of limitation because "statutes of limitation are in derogation of a presumptively valid claim.

Summary of this case from Patterson v. BP America Production Co.
Case details for

Regional Transportation District v. Voss

Case Details

Full title:Regional Transportation District, Petitioner, v. Janet F. Voss, Evelyn…

Court:Supreme Court of Colorado. EN BANC CHIEF JUSTICE ROVIRA dissents, and JUSTICE VOLLACK joins in the dissent

Date published: Feb 21, 1995

Citations

890 P.2d 663 (Colo. 1995)

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