SUNNY HAIGHT, Personal Representative of the Estate of SAVANNAH CAYCE, Appellant,
CITY & BOROUGH OF JUNEAU, Appellee.
from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, First
Judicial District No. 1JU-14-00706 CI, Juneau, Philip M.
Choate, Choate Law Firm LLC, Juneau, for Appellant.
A. Harrison, Faulkner Banfield, P.C., Juneau, for Appellee.
Before: Bolger, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers Maassen, and
died in a motorized watercraft accident on a lake managed in
part by a municipality. The minor's mother sued, claiming
that the municipality negligently failed to take measures to
ensure safe operation of motorized watercraft on the lake.
The municipality sought summary judgment based on
discretionary function immunity, which the superior court
granted. Because the superior court correctly applied the
doctrine of discretionary function immunity, we affirm its
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Lake sits within the City and Borough of Juneau. The State
owns the lake but shares management authority with the City.
State law at the relevant time allowed motorized watercraft
on the lake as long as they did not degrade or damage the
lake or its surroundings. A State land use plan also covered the
lake, but the plan did not appear to regulate watercraft
Like the State's land use plan, the City's
comprehensive land use plan required only that the lake be
managed to preserve the area's natural
features. The City did not have a separate land use
plan for the lake.
the State took the position that "conflicts between lake
users, property owners and residents are properly addressed
through local government control and enforcement." In
2007 the City passed an ordinance governing motorized
watercraft use on the lake, restricting areas and hours of
operation, size, and wake height. The ordinance did not
impose speed limits, horsepower limits, or traffic patterns,
although the City received comments and testimony urging that
the ordinance do so.
the City's planning department recommended replacing a
gravel boat launch near the lake's outlet with a concrete
launch near a visitor parking lot. The accompanying report
acknowledged comments urging the department to consider
possible increased motorized watercraft use and accompanying
safety concerns, but the report stated that the City assembly
would have to enact an ordinance to address public safety
issues created by any additional traffic. The recommendation
was approved, and the new boat launch was completed in 2011.
2012 teenager Savannah Cayce and a friend were riding in an
inflatable raft pulled by a motorized watercraft on the lake.
The operator, Robert Herring, later stated that he was
traveling about 40 to 45 miles per hour. Shawn Miller was
operating another motorized watercraft nearby, making
"deep, quick turns to try and roll" it. Herring
turned his watercraft, causing the inflatable raft carrying
Cayce to swing into Miller's watercraft. Cayce suffered a
serious head injury and died two days later.
mother, Sunny Haight, as personal representative of
Cayce's estate, sued the City, Herring, and Miller for
negligence, seeking damages for Cayce's suffering and
wrongful death. Haight contended that the City owed a duty of
care to lake users and that it breached its duty by failing
to take adequate measures to reduce safety hazards created by
motorized watercraft. She asserted that the City should have
established a speed limit, a horsepower limit, and traffic
patterns for motorized watercraft and should have posted
warning signs regarding safe use of the lake. The City sought
summary judgment based on discretionary function immunity,
which bars claims for damages against municipalities for acts
and omissions falling within discretionary governmental
functions. The superior court granted the City
summary judgment, reasoning that whether to take the measures
Haight suggested was a policy decision to be made by the City
assembly and that such a policy decision was protected by
discretionary function immunity.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
review a grant of summary judgment de novo, 'affirming if
the record presents no genuine issue of material fact and if
the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'
" "In conducting de novo review, we
will 'adopt the rule of law that is most persuasive in
light of precedent, reason, and policy.'
Overview Of Discretionary Function Immunity
law generally allows damages claims against municipalities,
but the law bars claims for damages "based upon the
exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform
a discretionary function or duty by a municipality or its
agents, officers, or employees." A companion statute waives
the State's sovereign immunity except for claims
involving discretionary functions. We have adopted the
"planning-operational test" to distinguish
decisions that are protected by discretionary function
immunity from those that are not. We have articulated the test
Under the "planning-operational" test... decisions
that rise to the level of planning or policy formulation will
be considered discretionary acts which are immune from tort
liability, whereas decisions that are merely operational in
nature, thereby implementing policy decisions, will not be
considered discretionary and therefore will not be shielded
test is somewhat imprecise; "almost any act, even
driving a nail, involves some 'discretion,'
" and we have stated that decisions made
while implementing a planning decision are not necessarily
unprotected operational decisions.Whether a decision is
planning or operational depends on the particular
look to the purposes underlying discretionary function
immunity" to guide our application of the
planning-operational test. "Discretionary function
immunity 'preserve[s] the separation of powers'"
by guarding against judicial intrusion on the policy-making
powers committed to the legislative and executive
branches; these powers include assessing the costs
and benefits of a proposed course of action, budgeting, and
distributing scarce government resources. Because
policy questions such as where to allocate resources or which
course of action to follow may arise after the initial
planning decision is made, we distinguish between decisions
involving" 'formulation of basic policy'
including consideration of financial, political, economic, or
social effects of the policy" and those involving
"[n]ormal day-by-day operations of the
government." The former are protected planning
decisions; the latter are unprotected operational
decisions. In other words, the planning-operational
test requires courts to "isolate those decisions
sufficiently sensitive" to separation of powers concerns
and "protect those decisions worthy of protection
without extending the cloak of immunity to an unwise
function immunity similarly prevents the judicial branch from
adjudicating the soundness of policy decisions that it lacks
the institutional capacity to make. And discretionary
function immunity protects public resources against
unforeseeable and overwhelming liability that might result
from making governmental policy decisions generally subject
whether a decision is planning or operational depends on the
particular circumstances. At one end of the spectrum, we
consistently have held that when the government does not have
an affirmative duty to act, it cannot be held liable for the
decision not to act. We have held that, absent a plan or
regulation dictating otherwise, decisions not to install
safety devices such as highway guardrails or sequential
traffic lights at specific locations are protected planning
decisions. The decision not to act is protected
because limited budgets entail tradeoffs between competing
needs - decisions involving basic policy ...