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Liley v. Cedar Springs Ranch Inc.

Court of Appeals of Utah

August 31, 2017

Patrick Liley, Appellee,
v.
Cedar Springs Ranch Inc., Appellant.

         Fourth District Court, Nephi Department The Honorable Jennifer A. Brown No. 120600012

          Brent D. Wride, Attorney for Appellant

          Joseph E. Wrona and Jared C. Bowman, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge David N. Mortensen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Stephen L. Roth and Kate A. Toomey concurred. [1]

          OPINION

          MORTENSEN, JUDGE.

         ¶1 A Black Angus cow strayed from the safety of its herd on property owned by Cedar Springs Ranch Inc., wandered through a hole in a poorly maintained fence, and found its way onto Highway 28 near Levan, Utah. While returning home one night, Patrick Liley collided with the cow, killing it and suffering injuries himself. Liley brought a negligence claim against Cedar Springs and prevailed at trial despite Cedar Springs' insistence that Warm Creek Ranch, which leased Cedar Springs' property and owned the cows at the time of the accident, was responsible for Liley's injuries. Cedar Springs appeals the trial court's decisions on its summary judgment and directed verdict motions. We reverse.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶2 Dale Dorius and his wife own Cedar Springs Ranch. Dorius is also one of six shareholders in Warm Creek Ranch. Dorius testified that in 1972, while acting on behalf of both entities, Dorius entered into an oral lease between Cedar Springs and Warm Creek. The lease allowed Warm Creek to use Cedar Springs' land to graze cattle for approximately four months of every year. Warm Creek was running cattle on Cedar Springs' property in October 2009-the time of Liley's accident. Liley admitted that Cedar Springs did not own the cattle.

         ¶3 At 2:00 a.m. on October 4, 2009, Liley was driving home from an elk hunting trip, heading north on Highway 28 near Levan, Utah. Liley's truck collided with a cow that had wandered onto the road. Liley pulled over and called 911. He heard a number of cows bellowing on the east side of the freeway-the direction of Cedar Springs' property. Liley also noted large holes in the fence along Cedar Springs' property and observed a tag on the cow's ear, which read "Dorius Family."[2]

         ¶4 In November 2011 Liley filed this action for negligence, naming Cedar Springs, Dorius, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), Juab County, and Sanpete County as defendants. Dorius, Juab County, and Sanpete County were dismissed from the action and their dismissal is not the subject of this appeal. UDOT prevailed on a directed verdict motion at trial, leaving Cedar Springs as the last remaining defendant. Liley never brought a claim against Warm Creek.

         ¶5 Before trial, Cedar Springs filed a motion for summary judgment. Cedar Springs argued that Liley failed to establish that it owed him any duty. In his response, Liley admitted that "Warm Creek . . . is a Corporation [that] owns and operates cattle and leases property from Cedar Springs." Liley argued that Cedar Springs owed him a duty under section 41-6a-407 of the Utah Code, which states,

A person who owns or is in possession or control of any livestock may not willfully or negligently permit any of the livestock to stray or remain unaccompanied on a highway[.]

Utah Code Ann. § 41-6a-407(1)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2016).[3] The thrust of Liley's argument was that "Dorius[] fits the definition as either 'owning or controlling the possession of any livestock' under the statute and it[[4] therefore has a duty."

         ¶6 The trial court did not issue a written ruling on Cedar Springs' motion for summary judgment. On the first day of trial, the trial court met with counsel in chambers. The minute entry reflects that the trial court made "findings" and denied Cedar Springs' motion for summary judgment. The in-chambers meeting, however, was held off the record, meaning the trial court's findings and basis for denying Cedar Springs' summary judgment motion are not available to us.[5]

         ¶7 The jury trial commenced, and, at the close of Liley's casein-chief, Cedar Springs moved for a directed verdict. Cedar Springs again argued that Liley had not established that Cedar Springs owed Liley any duty. Liley again argued that Cedar Springs owed him a statutory duty under section 41-6a-407. Liley additionally argued that Cedar Springs had a duty to use reasonable care in controlling Warm Creek as its lessee.

         ¶8 The trial court, this time on the record, denied Cedar Springs' motion for a directed verdict. The trial court concluded,

There is a landlord/tenant relationship based upon his own testimony, and I do find that a landlord does have some duty to control the actions of its tenant, and I would say that at least in this case I would think that duty perhaps is slightly greater given the close interrelationship of the parties. And so . . . I am going to find that there is sufficient competent evidence to go to the jury on the issue of negligence with regard to Cedar Springs[.]

         ¶9 Following the trial court's ruling, Cedar Springs presented additional evidence as part of its defense. At the conclusion of the trial the jury returned a special verdict form in which it allocated 85% fault for the accident to Cedar Springs, 15% to Liley, and no fault to Warm Creek. ...


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