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Smith v. Rudolph

Supreme Court of Connecticut

September 11, 2018


          Argued March 27, 2018

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for personal injuries sustained by the named plaintiff as a result of the named defendant's alleged negligence, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Britain, where the claims against the named defendant were withdrawn and where the claim of the plaintiff Marilyn Smith against the defendant state Department of Transportation was dismissed; thereafter, the court, Abrams, J., granted the department's motion to strike the plaintiff's case from the jury docket; subsequently, the case was tried to the court, Young, J.; judgment for the named plaintiff, from which the named plaintiff appealed. Affirmed.

          William J. Melley III, with whom was Gary A. Friedle, for the appellant (named plaintiff).

          Edward P. Brady III, with whom, on the brief, was Catherine M. Blair, for the appellee (defendant state Department of Transportation).

          Jonathan Hasbani and Daniel P. Scholfield filed a brief for the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

          Palmer, McDonald, Robinson, Mullins and Kahn, Js. [*]


          PALMER, J.

         This appeal requires us to determine whether there is a right to a jury trial in an action brought pursuant to General Statutes § 52-556, [1] which waives sovereign immunity for claims arising from a state employee's negligent operation of a state owned motor vehicle. The named plaintiff, Anthony Smith, [2]commenced this action, pursuant to § 52-556, against the defendant Department of Transportation, [3] seeking damages stemming from an accident that occurred when a bus owned and operated by the state collided with a vehicle that the plaintiff was driving. After the plaintiff claimed the action to the jury trial list, the defendant filed a motion to strike the case from that list on the ground that a jury trial is not authorized by § 52-556. The trial court granted the defendant's motion, and a trial to the court ensued, following which the court rendered judgment for the plaintiff, awarding him damages. The plaintiff appeals[4] from that judgment, claiming that the trial court incorrectly determined that § 52-556 does not afford him the right to a jury trial. Relying on the established principle that a common-law negligence action carries with it the right to a jury trial, the plaintiff maintains that, even though § 52-556 does not expressly provide for a jury trial, that provision constitutes a waiver of sovereign immunity that permits such an action against the state, thereby entitling him to a trial by jury. The defendant contends that § 52-556 does not give rise to a common-law negligence claim but, rather, creates a new cause of action, unknown at common law, such that the plaintiff has no right to a jury trial. We agree with the defendant, and, accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The record reveals the following undisputed facts and procedural history. On October 23, 2012, the plaintiff was driving to work when his vehicle was struck by a bus owned by the state and operated by a state employee, who was driving the bus within the scope of his employment. The accident occurred when the operator drove the bus through a red light at the intersection of West Main Street and South High Street in the city of New Britain and collided with the plaintiff's vehicle as the plaintiff, who had a green light, was lawfully negotiating a left turn at that intersection. The plaintiff's vehicle was damaged, and the plaintiff sustained injuries to his neck, back and legs.

         The plaintiff sought damages stemming from the bus operator's alleged negligence, and, subsequently, the plaintiff claimed the case for a jury trial. The defendant moved to strike the case from the jury docket on the ground that no jury trial was authorized under § 52-556. Thereafter, the trial court, Abrams, J., granted the defendant's motion and ordered the case transferred from the jury list to the court trial list. The plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration of the trial court's decision, which the court denied. Thereafter, the court issued a memorandum of decision explaining why the plaintiff was not entitled to a jury trial. The plaintiff then filed a notice of intention to appeal that from that decision. Following a court trial, the trial court, Young, J., rendered judgment for the plaintiff and awarded damages in the amount of $31, 953.12. This appeal followed.[5]

         On appeal, the plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly struck the case from the jury docket because § 52-556 authorizes a trial by jury. The plaintiff argues that the statute is a waiver of sovereign immunity that permits an action long recognized at common law-one sounding in ordinary negligence-to be brought against the state. In support of this contention, the plaintiff maintains that the legislature, by including the word ‘‘negligence'' in the statute, intended to incorporate the substantive legal principles that govern such common-law actions, including the right to a jury trial, which, this court has determined, is guaranteed under article first, § 19, of the Connecticut constitution.[6] In response, the defendant contends that the right to a jury trial cannot be implied in a statute waiving sovereign immunity but, rather, must be affirmatively expressed in the statutory language. We agree with the defendant that, because § 52-556 does not expressly provide for a right to a jury trial, the trial court properly struck the plaintiff's case from the jury docket.[7]

         As a preliminary matter, we set forth the legal principles that govern our resolution of the plaintiff's claim. Whether there is a right to a jury trial under § 52-556 presents an issue of statutory interpretation, over which we exercise plenary review. See, e.g., Perry v. Perry, 312 Conn. 600, 622, 95 A.3d 500 (2014). ‘‘When construing a statute, [o]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature. . . . In other words, we seek to determine, in a reasoned manner, the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of [the] case, including the question of whether the language actually does apply. . . . In seeking to determine that meaning [General Statutes] § 1-2z directs us first to consider the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes. If, after examining such text and considering such relationship, the meaning of such text is plain and unambiguous and does not yield absurd or unworkable results, extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered. . . . When a statute is not plain and unambiguous, we also look for interpretive guidance to the legislative history and circumstances surrounding its enactment, to the legislative policy it was designed to implement, and to its relationship to existing legislation and common law principles governing the same general subject matter . . . .'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Rivers v. New Britain, 288 Conn. 1, 10-11, 950 A.2d 1247 (2008).

         The general principles governing sovereign immunity are well established. ‘‘[W]e have long recognized the validity of the common-law principle that the state cannot be sued without its consent . . . .'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Cox v.Aiken, 278 Conn. 204, 211, 897 A.2d 71 (2006). ‘‘[A] litigant that seeks to overcome the presumption of sovereign immunity [pursuant to a statutory waiver] must show that . . . the legislature, either expressly or by force of a necessary implication, statutorily waived the state's sovereign immunity . . . . In making this determination, [a court shall be guided by] the well established principle that statutes in derogation of sovereign immunity should be strictly construed. . . . [When] there is any doubt about their meaning or intent they are given the effect which makes the least rather than the most change in sovereign immunity. . . . Furthermore, because such statutes are in derogation of the common law, [a]ny statutory waiver of immunity must be ...

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