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Faucheaux v. Provo City

Court of Appeals of Utah

August 9, 2018

Kevin Faucheaux, Appellant,
Provo City, Appellee.

          Fourth District Court, Provo Department The Honorable Fred D. Howard No. 100401999

          Sara Pfrommer, Ronald D. Wilkinson, Nathan S. Shill, and Marianne P. Card, Attorneys for Appellant

          Robert D. West, J. Brian Jones, and Gary D. Millward, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judge Michele M. Christiansen Forster concurred. Judge Jill M. Pohlman concurred in the result.


          ORME, JUDGE

         ¶1 Kevin Faucheaux appeals the dismissal of his suit against Provo City. The district court dismissed the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on the basis that Faucheaux, who seemingly brought this action as personal representative of the estate of Helen M. Faucheaux, did not have legal authority to bring a wrongful death suit. We reverse.

         ¶2 In 2009, Faucheaux called 911 after finding his wife, Helen Faucheaux, "unable to even complete a full sentence," "stumbling around the house," and "stumbl[ing] into the bathroom" where he "heard snorting noises."[1] Faucheaux informed the 911 operator that Helen had a history of drug abuse and that he was concerned that she "had overdosed." Provo City police officers were dispatched, arrived at the Faucheaux home, and concluded that Helen was intoxicated and needed to "sleep it off." They also advised Faucheaux to "leave her alone" since she was upset with him. Faucheaux insisted that his wife needed to be evaluated by a medical professional because she had previously attempted suicide and was possibly overdosing. Despite his pleas, the officers told him "to have a good night" and left. He did not have a good night. Approximately two hours later, Faucheaux went to check on his wife and found her dead.

         ¶3 Faucheaux brought a wrongful death suit against Provo City, claiming its officers "negligently failed to protect" Helen when they responded to "his request for a welfare check" because, in answering that request, they "undertook a specific action to protect" Helen. Provo City, then discerning no problem with standing or subject matter jurisdiction, simply answered the complaint and later filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that "its police officers had no legal duty to take [Helen] into custody against her will and deliver her for involuntary commitment" and that "[t]he discretionary acts of [Provo City's] police officers also provide [Provo City] with governmental immunity." Granting summary judgment to Provo City, the district court ruled that the city owed no duty of care to Helen and that, even if it did, it was immune from suit. Faucheaux appealed.

         ¶4 On appeal from the initial summary judgment against Faucheaux, we determined that the district court erred in concluding that "the public-duty doctrine shields Provo from liability." Faucheaux v. Provo City, 2015 UT App 3, ¶ 37, 343 P.3d 288. And we concluded "that the Governmental Immunity Act does not immunize Provo from [responsibility for] the officers' actions and omissions." Id. We then remanded the case for further proceedings, id., expecting the case would proceed to the discovery phase and then on to settlement or trial.

         ¶5 But on remand, Provo City instead latched on to a new procedural bar to Faucheaux's suit and moved to dismiss the case because "the Estate of Helen M. Faucheaux had no capacity to sue for wrongful death, and no real party in interest may be substituted." Faucheaux filed a response to the city's motion, arguing that Provo City forfeited the right to file a motion to dismiss when it filed its answer and that he brought his claim against Provo City as a personal representative of the heirs of Helen's estate, with the caption of his complaint identifying the estate as the party bringing the suit being merely a technical error. The district court dismissed the case, concluding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the estate did not have legal authority to bring a wrongful death suit under Utah Code section 78B-3-106(1) (Lexis Nexis 2012).[2] Faucheaux again appeals.

         ¶6 "Because the propriety of a motion to dismiss is a question of law, we review for correctness, giving no deference to the decision of the trial court." Krouse v. Bower, 2001 UT 28, ¶ 2, 20 P.3d 895. And "the question of whether subject matter jurisdiction exists is one of law," which we likewise review without deference to the trial court. Van Der Stappen v. Van Der Stappen, 815 P.2d 1335, 1337 (Utah Ct. App. 1991).

         ¶7 Faucheaux argues that the district court's rationale for dismissing his complaint on remand "conflated a standing issue with the issue of real party in interest, and wrongly concluded that it lacks jurisdiction to determine . . . the real party in interest in this case." He argues that "real party in interest" is not a question of subject matter jurisdiction that can be raised at any time, but rather one of legal capacity to sue, and for that reason, Provo City waived its objection when it failed to raise it in a timely way.[3]

         ¶8 Rule 17 of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure requires that "[e]very action shall be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest." Utah R. Civ. P. 17(a). "The real party in interest is the person entitled under the substantive law to enforce the right sued upon and who generally, but not necessarily, benefits from the action's final outcome." Orlob v. Wasatch Med. Mgmt., 2005 UT App 430, ¶ 17, 124 P.3d 269 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). As we recognized in Haro v. Haro, 887 P.2d 878 (Utah Ct. App. 1994), the real party in interest for a wrongful death suit is the decedent's heirs because Utah's wrongful death statute intends "to provide compensation to those who were dependent upon the decedent as a sole or supplemental means of economic and emotional support." Id. at 879 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Utah's wrongful death statute therefore permits only the heirs of the decedent, the personal representative of the decedent for the benefit of the decedent's heirs, or the heirs' guardian to bring a wrongful death suit. See Utah Code Ann. § 78B-3-106(1) (LexisNexis 2012). A wrongful death action on behalf of a decedent's estate, per se, has no legal basis under the statute. See Haro, 887 P.2d at 879.

         ¶9 Accordingly, the district court in the present case concluded that the estate-and by implication, Kevin Faucheaux as personal representative on behalf of the estate-lacked standing and that the court was therefore unable to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over the suit. But "subject matter jurisdiction concerns a court's broad authority to hear the sort of case before it."[4]Iota LLC v. Davco Mgmt. Co., 2016 UT App 231, ¶ 44, 391 P.3d 239. It also encompasses issues of justiciability, such as whether a party has standing. In re adoption of B.B., 2017 UT 59, ¶ 121, 417 P.3d 1. See also Alpine Homes, Inc. v. City of West Jordan, 2017 UT 45, ΒΆ 2 ("Standing is a question of subject matter jurisdiction that raises fundamental questions regarding a court's basic authority over the dispute.") (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted). Had Faucheaux lacked standing in this sense, the court would have been correct in dismissing the suit for lack of subject ...

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