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Krenning v. Heart Mountain Irrigation Dist.

January 29, 2009

STEVEN M. KRENNING AND JOYCE C. KRENNING, HUSBAND AND WIFE, APPELLANTS (PLAINTIFFS),
v.
HEART MOUNTAIN IRRIGATION DISTRICT AND JAMES FLOWERS, NO. S-07-0271 APPELLEES (DEFENDANTS), AND THE STATE OF WYOMING, APPELLEE (INTERVENOR).



Appeal from the District Court of Park County The Honorable Steven R. Cranfill, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Burke, Justice.

OCTOBER TERM, A.D. 2008

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Steven and Joyce Krenning brought suit against the Heart Mountain Irrigation District and its employee, James Flowers, seeking recovery for personal injuries Mr. Krenning suffered in an altercation with Mr. Flowers. The district court ruled that the Irrigation District and Mr. Flowers were immune from liability pursuant to the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act (WGCA), and granted summary judgment in their favor. Mr. and Mrs. Krenning challenge that decision in this appeal. We will affirm.

ISSUES

[¶2] The Krennings state the following issues, although we put them in a different order to facilitate discussion:

1. Appellee Heart Mountain Irrigation District is not a governmental entity under the provisions of the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act, W.S. § 1-39-101, et seq., (LexisNexis 2007), and thus neither the Irrigation District, nor its employees, are within the scope of governmental immunity granted by the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act.

2. If Appellee Heart Mountain Irrigation District is a governmental entity for purposes of the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act (WGCA), it is also a "public utility" for which immunity has been waived under the provisions of W.S. § 1-39-108, and thus both the Irrigation District and its employees may be liable for their negligence.

3. Under the alternative allegations of Appellants‟ Complaint, Appellee James Flowers was asserted to be acting both within and without the scope of his employment. Questions of fact remain as to whether he was acting outside the scope of his employment so as to not be protected by any immunity that allegedly exists for the Irrigation District.

4. Granting Sovereign Immunity to an Irrigation District and its employees, such as Appellees, is contrary to and violative of the Wyoming Constitutional guarantees of Equal Protection under Article 1, §§ 2, 3, 6, 8, 34 and Article 3, § 27.

FACTS

[¶3] Heart Mountain Irrigation District is an irrigation district organized pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 41-7-201 (LexisNexis 2007). Through a series of canals, ditches, dams, and other works, the Irrigation District delivers irrigation water to landowners with water rights within the district. Mr. Flowers was an employee of the Irrigation District. Mr. Krenning owns and leases lands within the Irrigation District, and receives irrigation water from the Irrigation District.

[¶4] On October 4, 2004, Mr. Flowers and Mr. Krenning had a chance meeting on the road paralleling one of the Irrigation District‟s canals. They began arguing, and a physical confrontation followed. There is considerable dispute about the details, but the district court‟s decision letter provided this useful summary:

[The Krennings] allege that Flowers had a volatile temper which had been reported to the District on numerous occasions. [The Irrigation District and Mr. Flowers] allege that [Mr. Krenning] had a history of behavior that "terrorized" neighbors and family members.

Regardless, on October 4, 2004, Flowers was working for the District and talking with a ditch rider, Mr. House, when Steve Krenning approached him to discuss ditch seepage. Flowers was sitting in his truck at the time. There had been previous accusations from Flowers that Krenning was improperly using irrigation water. A confrontation between Flowers and Krenning ensued and it is undisputed that Flowers struck Krenning with a shovel at least twice. As a result, Krenning‟s arm was broken and he received head injuries.

[¶5] Mr. Flowers was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. At trial, he did not deny hitting Mr. Krenning with the shovel. However, he claimed that he had acted in self-defense, and that Mr. Krenning had been the aggressor. The jury agreed that Mr. Flowers had acted in self-defense,*fn1 and he was acquitted.

[¶6] On July 14, 2005, the Krennings presented the Irrigation District with a Verified Notice of Claim pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-39-113, which requires such notice before an action may be brought against a governmental entity. The Irrigation District did not respond to the notice, and on August 10, 2005, the Krennings filed a complaint in the district court against the Irrigation District and Mr. Flowers. On June 15, 2007, the Irrigation District moved for summary judgment, asserting immunity from suit pursuant to the WGCA. Mr. Flowers joined that motion, claiming that he was also subject to governmental immunity as an employee of the Irrigation District. The district court ruled in favor of the Irrigation District and Mr. Flowers, and the Krennings appeal that decision.

[¶7] One of the issues raised in this appeal is the constitutionality of the WGCA. Accordingly, notice was served on the Attorney General as required by Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-37-113 and W.R.C.P. 24(d). The State of Wyoming intervened in order to address the constitutional challenge.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶8] Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. W.R.C.P. 56(c); Metz Beverage Co. v. Wyoming Beverages, Inc., 2002 WY 21, ¶ 9, 39 P.3d 1051, 1055 (Wyo. 2002). "A genuine issue of material fact exists when a disputed fact, if it were proven, would establish or refute an essential element of a cause of action or a defense that the parties have asserted." Id. Because summary judgment involves a purely legal determination, we undertake de novo review of a trial court‟s summary judgment decision. Glenn v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 2008 WY 16, ¶ 6, 176 P.3d 640, 642 (Wyo. 2008).

Jacobs Ranch Coal Co. v. Thunder Basin Coal Co., LLC, 2008 WY 101, ¶ 8, 191 P.3d 125, 128-29 (Wyo. 2008).

DISCUSSION

1. Is the Irrigation District subject to governmental immunity?

[¶9] This is the first time we have been squarely presented with the question of whether the WGCA provides governmental immunity to an irrigation district. To answer the question, we must interpret the statutory language of the WGCA. "Statutory interpretation is a question of law, so our review is de novo." Qwest Corp. v. Public Svc. Comm'n of Wyo., 2007 WY 97, ¶ 3, 161 P.3d 495, 497 (Wyo. 2007). We attempt to determine the ...


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