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Machado v. Taylor

Supreme Court of Connecticut

July 25, 2017

RAUNI MACHADO
v.
WILBERT TAYLOR ET AL.

          Argued March 28, 2017

          Ronald D. Williams, Jr., for the appellant (defendant Department of Transportation).

          Nathan C. Nasser, with whom was Robert A. Shrage, for the appellee (plaintiff).

          Rogers, C.J., and Palmer, McDonald, Espinosa, Robinson and Vertefeuille, Js.

         Syllabus

         Pursuant to statute (§ 52-556), any person injured through the negligence of any state official or employee in the course of operating a motor vehicle owned and insured by the state against personal injuries or property damage shall have a right of action against the state to recover damages for such injury.

         The plaintiff brought an action pursuant to § 52-556 against the defendant state Department of Transportation, seeking to recover damages for personal injuries he sustained as a result of an accident in which his motor vehicle was struck by a motor vehicle owned by the state and operated by one of its employees. Although the plaintiff alleged in his complaint that the state owned the vehicle, which the defendant admitted, he did not allege that the vehicle was insured by the state against personal injuries or property damage. Following the close of evidence after a bench trial, during which the plaintiff proffered no evidence that the vehicle was insured by the state, the defendant filed a motion for judgment of dismissal, pursuant to the rules of practice (§§ 10-30 [a] [1] and 15-8), in which it asserted that the plaintiff's failure to establish at trial that the vehicle was insured by the state placed the claim outside the purview of the waiver of sovereign immunity in § 52-556 and deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction. The plaintiff opposed that motion, contending that it was never in dispute that the vehicle was insured by the state. He attached to his motion an exhibit in which the defendant admitted in an interrogatory that the state maintained self-insurance on the vehicle. The plaintiff concurrently filed a motion to open the evidence to allow him to place the interrogatory into evidence. The defendant opposed the motion to open, arguing that the trial court first had to address the dispositive jurisdictional issue or, alternatively, that the motion should be denied because the interrogatory could have been proffered earlier. Prior to rendering judgment for the plaintiff, the trial court denied the defendant's motion for judgment of dismissal but did not rule on the plaintiff's motion to open. The court's stated rationale for its denial of the defendant's motion was the defendant's delay in filing the motion or the application of the doctrine of laches. On the defendant's appeal challenging the court's decision on the motion for judgment of dismissal, held that the trial court improperly denied the defendant's motion on the basis of delay or laches and rendered judgment for the plaintiff without first resolving whether the defendant's motion raised a colorable jurisdictional issue and, if so, whether the court had jurisdiction over the cause of action, and, because the record in the case suggested that the various issues potentially implicated by the claims and circumstances were better left to be resolved in the first instance by the trial court, the judgment was reversed and the case was remanded to that court to resolve the jurisdictional challenge: to the extent that the defendant sought to challenge the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction through its motion, pursuant to Practice Book § 15-8, for failure to make out a prima facie case, such a motion was procedurally improper, and the trial court should have considered the jurisdictional issue raised by the defendant in its motion under Practice Book § 10-30, the appropriate procedure for challenging subject matter jurisdiction; moreover, the trial court was required to resolve the question of whether it had jurisdiction irrespective of the propriety of the procedural vehicle by which it was raised, and delay or laches was not a proper basis on which to deny a challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction in relation to whether a claim falls within the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity.

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of the named defendant's negligent operation of a motor vehicle owned by the state, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven at Meriden, where the action was dismissed as against the named defendant; thereafter, the matter was tried to the court, Cronan, J.; subsequently, the court denied the defendant Department of Transportation's motion for judgment of dismissal and rendered judgment for the plaintiff, from which the defendant Department of Transportation appealed. Reversed; further proceedings.

          OPINION

          McDONALD, J.

         The sole issue in this appeal is whether a party's delay in raising a challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a proper ground on which to decline to dismiss the action. The defendant state Department of Transportation appeals from the trial court's judgment in favor of the plaintiff, Rauni Machado, in his negligence action, following the trial court's denial of the defendant's motion for judgment of dismissal premised on the plaintiff's failure to allege and prove an element of the statutory waiver of sovereign immunity cited as authority to bring the action. We agree with the defendant that the timing of its motion was an improper ground on which to deny the motion for judgment of dismissal insofar as it challenged subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case for reconsideration of that motion.

         The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. A motor vehicle operated by the plaintiff was struck by a motor vehicle owned by the state and operated by a state employee. In November, 2012, the plaintiff brought the present action against the defendant, seeking to recover damages for personal injuries sustained as a result of the accident and alleging in his complaint that General Statutes § 52-556 authorized the action.[1] Section 52-556 provides: ‘‘Any person injured in person or property through the negligence of any state official or employee when operating a motor vehicle owned and insured by the state against personal injuries or property damage shall have a right of action against the state to recover damages for such injury.'' The complaint alleged that the state owned the vehicle, which the defendant admitted, but it did not allege that the vehicle was insured by the state against personal injuries or property damage. In November, 2015, the matter proceeded to a bench trial, during which the plaintiff proffered no evidence to establish that the vehicle was insured by the state.

         After the close of evidence but before either party had submitted posttrial briefs, the defendant filed a motion captioned ‘‘Motion for Judgment of Dismissal, '' pursuant to both Practice Book §§ 10-30 (a) (1)[2] and 15-8, [3] asserting that the plaintiff's failure to offer evidence at trial to establish that the vehicle was insured by the state placed the claim outside the purview of the waiver of sovereign immunity in § 52-556, and thus deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction. The plaintiff filed an opposition to the motion, in which he contended that it was never in dispute that the vehicle was insured by the state or that his claim fell within the waiver under § 52-556. The plaintiff attached to that opposition as an exhibit an interrogatory dated more than two years before trial, in which the defendant acknowledged that the state maintained self-insurance on the vehicle. The plaintiff concurrently filed a request to open the evidence to allow him to place the interrogatory into evidence. The defendant opposed the motion to open, arguing that the trial court first had to address the dispositive jurisdictional issue, and, alternatively, that the motion should be denied on the merits because the interrogatory could have been proffered earlier. Although the defendant argued that it would be prejudicial to consider the interrogatory, it did not contend that it would have introduced evidence to rebut its response in the interrogatory. See Piantedosi v. Floridia, 186 Conn. 275, 278, 440 A.2d 977 (1982) (‘‘An answer filed by a party to an interrogatory has the same effect as a judicial admission made in a pleading or in open court. It relieves the opposing party of the necessity of proving the facts admitted . . . but it is not conclusive upon him and will not prevail over evidence offered at the trial.'' [Internal quotation marks omitted.]); see also General Statutes § 52-200 (same).

         The trial court ruled on the defendant's motion for a judgment of dismissal in its memorandum of decision rendering judgment for the plaintiff, but it did not rule on the plaintiff's motion to open evidence. In considering the defendant's motion attacking the plaintiff's failure of proof under two rules of practice, the trial court did not expressly consider whether the motion raised a jurisdictional issue or a challenge to the legal sufficiency of the claim. See Egri v.Foisie, 83 Conn.App. 243, 246-51, 848 A.2d 1266 (failure to allege negligent operation of vehicle as required by § 52-556 should have been raised through motion to strike, not motion to dismiss, because plaintiff potentially could state claim under statute), cert. denied, 271 Conn. 931, 859 A.2d 930 (2004); see also In re Jose B., 303 Conn. 569, 572-80, 34 A.3d 975 (2012) (clarifying that absence of jurisdiction means that plaintiff could not establish jurisdictional facts, not that plaintiff had not done so). Nor did the court consider whether the factual issue asserted in the defendant's motion, alone or in combination with the interrogatory, raised an issue of fact that required further proceedings to resolve the jurisdictional issue. See Standard Tallow Corp. v. Jowdy, 190 Conn. 48, 56, 459 A.2d 503 (1983) (trial court may hold hearing if issues of fact are necessary to determine jurisdiction); see also Conboy v.State, 292 Conn. 642, 651-54, 974 A.2d 669 (2009) (describing procedures for addressing jurisdictional challenge depending on point at which issue raised). Instead, the trial court ...


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