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Kappenman v. Klipfel

May 26, 2009

ALFRED KAPPENMAN AND JULIE NESS, AKA JULIE KAPPENMAN, ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR SON, BRASON KAPPENMAN, DECEASED, AND ALFRED KAPPENMAN AND JULIE KAPPENMAN ON BEHALF OF THE HEIRS AND NEXT-OF-KIN OF BRASON KAPPENMAN, DECEASED, PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS
v.
BRENT KLIPFEL, AND ALBION TOWNSHIP, A POLITICAL SUBDIVISION OF THE STATE OF NORTH DAKOTA, DEFENDANTS AND APPELLEES



Appeal from the District Court of Dickey County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable John T. Paulson, Judge.

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

AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND REMANDED.

[¶1] Alfred Kappenman and Julie Ness, on behalf of their deceased son, Brason Kappenman, appeal from judgments dismissing their wrongful death action against Brent Klipfel and Albion Township. We conclude the district court erred in granting summary judgment dismissing Albion Township from the action, but did not err in dismissing Klipfel from the action. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

I.

[¶2] On August 1, 2006, Brason Kappenman was killed when the all terrain vehicle ("ATV") he was driving dropped into a washout which had formed a trench across a section line in Albion Township in Dickey County. Brason Kappenman, who was 13 years-old at the time, had been mowing hay on one of his father's fields by himself after Alfred Kappenman had to leave the farm for an appointment in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Brason Kappenman told his father "[h]e wanted to go look around to see where to put a deer stand," and Alfred Kappenman told him, "`[i]f things break down . . . just go and do that.'"

[¶3] Brason Kappenman worked that afternoon in a field located about two miles directly north of the Kappenman farmstead, which is 12 miles northwest of Ellendale. The tractor quit running while Brason Kappenman was mowing hay so he left on the ATV he had driven to the field to go back to the farmstead and began looking for a spot to place a deer stand. Brason Kappenman ultimately drove on the section line and into the trench. The trench is located two and one-half miles west and one mile north of the farmstead, and the trench was surrounded by tall grass and small rocks. The trench was four and one-half feet wide, three feet deep, and between fifteen and eighteen feet long. According to Alfred Kappenman, he noticed skid marks leading to the trench indicating Brason Kappenman had attempted to turn away from the trench. The Dickey County Sheriff's Office incident report noted the washout "was hard to see until you were right on it." After the accident, Albion Township placed a "road closed" sign on the section line.

[¶4] Brent Klipfel owns the land on both sides of the section line where the accident occurred. Klipfel said the section line is used by farmers to access their farmland, and he has noticed up to "seven to ten" vehicles on the road per day during hunting season. The sections of land have natural waterways that meander and cross the scene of the accident. Klipfel cleaned the waterways in 2004 or 2005 when they silted up with tillage. The severity of the trenches varies from year to year depending on the weather. According to Klipfel, in April 2006 he informed a member of the three-member Albion Township Board, Mark Bobbe, that the entire one mile-long section line was "getting bad." Bobbe denied the conversation took place. Klipfel also said he told board member Virgil Dewald in June 2005 "that he needs to go down and take a look at this washout where Brason had his accident, and he said that he didn't have time that day, and that he would get at it." Dewald acknowledged the conversation took place and said he told Alfred Kappenman that "I would put it on the FEMA site and that we would inspect it," but admitted that "I didn't get to it." Dewald said that the township maintains its gravel roads, but does not maintain section line roads.

[¶5] In June 2007, Alfred Kappenman and Julie Ness brought this wrongful death action against Klipfel and Albion Township. They alleged Klipfel negligently maintained the portion of the section line where the accident occurred; Klipfel and Albion Township had a duty to abate or make the section line safe and knew or should have known of the existence of the trench and warned against the hazard; and the trench constituted a public nuisance entitling them to maintain a civil action against Klipfel and Albion Township under N.D.C.C. § 42-01-07(4). Klipfel and Albion Township moved for summary judgment and the district court granted the motions. The court concluded that Albion Township did not have a duty to repair the section line and the claims against it were barred by the discretionary immunity doctrine. The court also concluded the claims against Klipfel and Albion Township were barred by the recreational use immunity statutes and the washout in the section line did not constitute a public nuisance.

II.

[¶6] Kappenman and Ness contend the district court erred in granting summary judgment dismissing their wrongful death action.

[¶7] The principles governing summary judgment are well-established:

Summary judgment under N.D.R.Civ.P. 56(c) is a procedural device for the prompt and expeditious disposition of any action without a trial "if either litigant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and if no dispute exists as to either the material facts or the inferences to be drawn from undisputed facts, or if resolving factual disputes will not alter the result." Duemeland v. Norback, 2003 ND 1, ¶ 8, 655 N.W.2d 76 (citing Wahl v. Country Mut. Ins. Co., 2002 ND 42, ¶ 6, 640 N.W.2d 689). Whether the district court properly granted a summary judgment motion "is a question of law that we review de novo on the record." Trinity Hosps. v. Mattson, 2006 ND 231, ¶ 10, 723 N.W.2d 684.

"The party moving for summary judgment must show . . . no genuine issues of material fact [exist] and the case is appropriate for judgment as a matter of law." Id. "In determining whether summary judgment was appropriately granted, we . . . view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion," giving that party "the benefit of all favorable inferences which can reasonably be drawn from the record." Hasper v. Center Mut. Ins. Co., 2006 ND 220, ¶ 5, 723 N.W.2d 409. However, "[u]nder N.D.R.Civ.P. 56, if the movant meets its initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the party opposing the motion may not rest on mere allegations or denials in the pleadings, but must present competent admissible evidence by affidavit or other comparable means to show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact." Riemers v. Grand Forks Herald, 2004 ND 192, ¶ 4, 688 N.W.2d 167.

Alerus Fin., N.A. v. Western State Bank, 2008 ND 104, ¶¶ 16-17, 750 N.W.2d 412.

A.

[¶8] Kappenman and Ness argue the district court erred in ruling Albion Township had no duty to repair the section line. They contend that if Albion Township did not have a duty to repair, it at least had a duty to warn travelers of a known hazardous condition on the section line.

[¶9] If no duty exists on the part of an alleged tortfeasor, there is no actionable negligence. Ficek v. Morken, 2004 ND 158, ¶ 9, 685 N.W.2d 98. Whether a duty exists is generally a question of law, but if the existence of a duty depends upon the resolution of factual issues, the facts must be resolved by the trier of fact. Id.

[¶10] "[C]ongressional section lines are considered public roads open for public travel." N.D.C.C. § 24-07-03. Section 24-06-01, N.D.C.C., provides that the "board of township supervisors of any township in the state has general supervision over the roads, highways, and bridges throughout the township." In DeLair v. LaMoure County, 326 N.W.2d 55, 61 (N.D. 1982), this Court construed N.D.C.C. § 24-07-03 and its predecessor statutes and held "a public road, as contemplated by NDCC § 24-07-03, does not impose a duty on a county or township to maintain an improved road on the section line. A county or a township does not have a duty to maintain an improved road on each section line, nor do we believe a county or a township can be held legally liable for injuries to persons using a portion of a designated public road which the county or township has not undertaken to improve." DeLair involved a motorcycle accident which occurred on a section line within the limits of an incorporated city. Id. at 56-57, 60. In limiting the parameters of its decision, the Court carefully noted:

In this instance we must keep in mind that there was a stop sign at the intersection of the county and township roads. There was no pit, structure, excavation or trap which was unusually hazardous in view of the fact that the intersection was controlled by a stop sign. Each individual driver must take some responsibility for obeying traffic signs, such as stop signs. We are not expressing an opinion as to the factual question of whether or not DeLair stopped at the stop sign; however, we believe that the intersection, controlled as it was by a stop sign, was not a dangerous or unusually hazardous condition to a driver exercising ordinary care and driving within the limits of the law.

Id. at 63. DeLair did not address allegations of a failure to warn of a known hazardous condition on a section line.

[¶11] Although the DeLair Court held that a township has no duty to maintain an improved road on each section line, the Court further recognized the principle that "there is a duty to erect barriers or railings along highways and roads to make the way safe from hazardous or dangerous conditions for travelers using ordinary care." 326 N.W.2d at 62. Cf. N.D.C.C. § 24-06-31 ("Each overseer of highways having personal knowledge, or on being notified in writing, of any obstruction in the highway or public street in the overseer's district immediately shall remove or cause any such obstruction to be removed."); State v. Silseth, 399 N.W.2d 868, 869 (N.D. 1987) ("Section lines are often referred to as highways."). Because a township has no duty under the law to maintain an improved road on each section line, we agree that "[a] township does not have a roving duty to inspect every unimproved and un-vacated section line for possible natural and man-made obstructions." Douville v. Christensen, 641 N.W.2d 651, 655 (S.D. 2002). However, because a township is charged with the general supervision over roads throughout the township, we believe a township board cannot simply ignore hazardous or dangerous section line road conditions of which it has knowledge. We therefore conclude that a township board with actual knowledge of an unusually dangerous or unusually hazardous condition on an unimproved section line road has a duty to warn travelers of that condition. An "unusually dangerous" or "unusually hazardous" condition on a section line road is one so peculiarly dangerous there is a substantial risk that a person exercising ordinary care and driving within the limits of the law could not drive on that part of the road safely. See, e.g., DeLair, 326 N.W.2d at 63 ("[T]he intersection, controlled as it was by a stop sign, was not a dangerous or unusually hazardous condition to a driver exercising ordinary care and driving within the limits of the law"); DiFrischia v. New York Cent. R.R. Co., 307 F.2d 473, 476 (3rd Cir. 1962) ("A crossing is unusually hazardous if there is substantial risk that a driver in the exercise of ordinary care may be unable to avoid collision with a train operated over the crossing in compliance with statutory requirements"); Cunningham v. Baltimore and Ohio R.R. Co., 334 A.2d 120, 124 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1975) (crossing is unusually dangerous "`if the conditions surrounding it were so peculiarly dangerous that a person of ordinary prudence could not use the same with safety unless the defendant employed extraordinary means to give warning of the presence of its train standing across the highway'" (internal citation omitted)); Allinson v. Missouri-Kansas-Texas R.R. Co., 347 S.W.2d 902, 906 (Mo. Ct. App. 1961) (crossing is unusually hazardous "`[i]f the motorist is exercising the requisite care for his own safety but the particular circumstances nevertheless create an illusion of safety'" (internal citation omitted)); see also Missouri, K. & T. Ry. Co. v. Long, 299 S.W. 854, 855 (Tex Comm'n. App. 1927) ("more than ordinarily dangerous" crossing is "one that is so peculiarly dangerous that a person of ordinary prudence could not use the same with safety"). Constructive knowledge is insufficient to give rise to the duty. We further believe actual knowledge given to at least one member of the township board is sufficient to impose the duty. See Pawelk v. Camden Township, 415 N.W.2d 47, 51 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987) (knowledge of one township board member that employee had been in military obligated township board to provide employee notice and opportunity for hearing under Veterans Preference Act). Indeed, board member Dewald told Klipfel the board would inspect the washout based on the information Klipfel had given him.

[¶12] Here, Kappenman and Ness have alleged that Klipfel told two of the board members on different occasions that the section line was in a hazardous or dangerous condition. Although one of the board members denied that the conversation occurred, this allegation is sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact whether Albion Township had actual knowledge of an unusually dangerous or unusually hazardous condition on the section line. We conclude the district court erred in ruling Albion Township had no duty under these allegations and in granting summary judgment dismissal on this issue.

B.

[¶13] Kappenman and Ness argue the district court erred in dismissing on summary judgment their action against Albion Township on the ground of discretionary immunity.

[¶14] In Kautzman v. McDonald, 2001 ND 20, ¶ 30, 621 N.W.2d 871, this Court explained discretionary function immunity:

A political subdivision is exempt under N.D.C.C. § 32-12.1-03(3) from liability for an act or omission of its employees who are performing discretionary functions or duties. We engage in a two-part inquiry when determining whether the discretionary function exception applies: (1) whether the conduct at issue is discretionary, involving an element of judgment or choice for the acting employee; and (2) if the act is discretionary, whether that judgment or choice is of the kind the discretionary function exception was designed to shield. Olson v. City of Garrison, 539 N.W.2d 663, 666-67 (N.D. 1995).

[¶15] We further explained in Peterson v. Traill County, 1999 ND 197, ¶ 13, 601 N.W.2d 268:

The primary focus of the second part of the test is on the nature of the actions taken and on whether they are susceptible to policy analysis. Olson, 539 N.W.2d at 667. We explained in Olson, 539 N.W.2d at 667-68 (citations omitted):

The purpose of the discretionary function exception is to "prevent judicial `second-guessing' of legislative and administrative decisions grounded in social, economic, and political policy through the medium of an action in tort." When properly construed, the exception should shield only governmental action based on public policy considerations. Moreover, public policy considerations, social, economic, or political, must be distinguished from more objective standards based on, for example, scientific, engineering, or technical considerations. The latter are ...


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