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You can search the entire site. or go to the recent opinions, or the chronological or subject indices. Mattox v. State, Dept. of Corrections (5/19/2017) sp-7170
Notice: This opinion is subject to correction before publication in the P ACIFIC REPORTER. Readers are requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts, 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878, email firstname.lastname@example.org. THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF ALASKA RICHARD A. MATTOX, ) ) Supreme Court No. S-16031 Appellant, ) ) Superior Court No. 3PA-09-01695 CI v. ) ) O P I N I O N STATE OF ALASKA, ) DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS ) No. 7170 - May 19, 2017 , ) Appellee. ) _______________________________ ) Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Vanessa White, Judge. Appearances: Benjamin I. Whipple, Palmer, for Appellant. Susan M. West, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee. Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, Justices. [Winfree and Carney, Justices, not participating.] STOWERS, Chief Justice. I. INTRODUCTION In July 2009 Richard Mattox filed suit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) for injuries arising from an assault by another prisoner. Mattox alleged that DOC was negligent in failing to accommodate his requests for transfer to a different housing module prior to the assault and that DOC was negligent in permitting the correctional officer on duty to leave the module during the time the assault occurred. ----------------------- Page 19----------------------- "renew its request for immunity as to particular claims at the close of plaintiffs' case in 46 chief." Consequently, OCS moved for a directed verdict on discretionary function 47 The court denied that motion and concluded that the scope of immunity grounds. 48 While we did not base OCS's liability would be addressed through jury instructions. our decision on the superior court's approach to discretionary function immunity, we took the "opportunity to clarify the proper procedure for ensuring that the jury does not hold the [S]tate liable for its discretionary acts."49 Following our decision in State, Department of Corrections v. Cowles, we explained, "[T]he allegedly negligent decisions in a particular case must be examined individually to determine if they are" protected by discretionary function immunity. The trial court should attempt to rule on these issues during pre-trial motion practice. But if specific factual questions necessary to the trial court's legal determinations need to be resolved by the jury, specific jury interrogatories should be used. In short, although the jury may need to decide the factual underpinnings of the trial court's conclusions, discretionary immunity decisions must remain with the judge. Mattox correctly observes that "the [superior] court made no pre-trial or mid-trial decisions on the application of the discretionary immunity defense" to DOC's policy permitting correctional officers to leavetheirmodules unattended for briefperiods of time, leaving the jury "free to decide for itself the scope and application of the state 46 Id. 47 Id. 48 Id. 49 Id. at 1043. 50 Id. at 1044 (quoting State, Dep't of Corr. v. Cowles, 151 P.3d 353, 359 (Alaska 2006)). -19- 7170 ----------------------- Page 20----------------------- discretionary function immunity doctrine." During a hearing on Mattox's motion for new trial the superior court also acknowledged in its oral ruling that the proper procedure, which none of [them] followed, would have been for the court to ideally hold an evidentiary hearing prior to trial on the issues the parties reasonably could identify as speaking to the issue of discretionary immunity and to make rulings about what evidence would not be allowed, if any, because it was protected by that immunity. The alternative would have been a special verdict form that helped the court to preserve for itself the issues of discretionary immunity. We agree with the superior court that it is best practice to reserve questions of discretionary function immunity for itself, but its failure to do so in this context was not error, as it was in Mullins. In Mullins OCS had expressly requested that the superior court decide the scope and application of discretionary immunity twice, once through a 51 This summary judgment motion and again through a motion for a directed verdict. required the superior court to follow the procedures laid out in Mullins and decide the issue for itself.52 Instead, the court refused to decide the matter and issued an erroneous jury instruction. 53 In contrast, Mattox made no summary judgment or directed verdict motion regarding the issue, nor did he object to DOC's proposed instruction. When the superior court proposed a modified version of this instruction and presented it to both parties Mattox again did not object. Accordingly, the court gave the legally correct statement of the law to the jury. Thus, unlike Mullins, Mattox impliedly consented to have the jury apply an accurate statement of the law of discretionary function immunity, 51 Id. at 1040. 52 Id. 53 Id. at 1043. -20- 7170 ----------------------- Page 21----------------------- as articulated by the superior court, to the facts as the jury found them. We therefore conclude that the superior court's failure to apply the doctrine for itself sua sponte was not error, let alone plain error. 54 Lastly, "we review denial of a new trial under an abuse of discretion standard wherein we disturb the trial court's discretion only in the most exceptional 55 "[G]enerally the verdict should circumstances to prevent a miscarriage of justice." stand unless the evidence clearly establishes a serious violation of the juror's duty and deprives a party of a fair trial."56 Given that the superior court did not commit error, the court's decision to deny Mattox a new trial was not an abuse of discretion. In other words, disturbing the court's denial of a new trial is unwarranted and not necessary to prevent a miscarriage of justice.57 V. CONCLUSION We AFFIRM the superior court's denial of Mattox's motion for a new trial. 54 Under Alaska Civil Rule 51, Mattox could not "assign as error the giving or the failure to give an instruction unless [he] object[ed] thereto before the jury retire[d] to consider its verdict, stating distinctly the matter to which [he] object[ed] and the grounds of the objection." Mattox had several opportunities to object, but did not. Instead he agreed with issuing the instruction. Now he alleges plain error on appeal, but we conclude that neither the superior court's approach to discretionary function immunity in this context nor the language of the instruction given was erroneous. 55 Alaska Fur Gallery, Inc. v. First Nat'l Bank Alaska, 345 P.3d 76, 83 (Alaska 2015) (quoting Turner v. Municipality of Anchorage, 171 P.3d 180, 185 (Alaska 2007)). 56 West v. State, 409 P.2d 847, 852 (Alaska 1966) (citing State v. Gardner, 371 P.2d 558, 561 (Or. 1962)). 57 We have not been asked to decide whether the jury's application of discretionary function immunity to DOC's policy of allowing officers to leave modules unattended for short periods of time was correct and we do not decide the issue here. -21- 7170
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