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Mendoza v. Wis International, Inc.

Supreme Court of Arkansas

April 14, 2016

CORINA MENDOZA PETITIONER
v.
WIS INTERNATIONAL, INC., ANTHON Y ADAMS, AND WASHINGTON INVENTORY SERVICES, INC. RESPONDENTS

CERTIFIED QUESTION FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS, WESTERN DIVISION HONORABLE JAMES M. MOODY, JR.

Brian G. Brooks, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by: Brian G. Brooks; and The Brad Hendricks Law Firm, by: Christopher R. Heil and George Wise, for petitioner.

Huckabay Law Firm, PLC, by: D. Michael Huckabay, Jr., and Kathryn B. Knisley, for respondents WIS International, Inc., and Washington Inventory Services, Inc.

McMillan, McCorkle, Curry & Bennington, L.L.P., by: F. Thomas Curry; and Munson, Rowlett, Moore, by: Shane Strabala and Kara B. Mikles, for respondent Anthony Adams.

Law Office of David H. Williams, PLLC, by: David H. Williams, for Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, amicus curiae.

Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, LLP, by: Gregory T. Jones and Kristen S. Moyers, for American Trucking Associations, Inc. and Arkansas Trucking Association, Inc., amici curiae.

PAUL E. DANIELSON, Associate Justice

This case involves a question of law certified to this court by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in accordance with Arkansas Supreme Court Rule 6-8 and accepted by this court on September 17, 2015. See Mendoza v. WIS Int'l, Inc., 2015 Ark. 321.

The certified question is:

Under the facts of this case, does Arkansas Code Annotated section 27-37-703, which restricts the admissibility of seat belt-nonuse evidence in civil actions, violate the separation-of-powers doctrine found in article IV, section 2, of the Arkansas Constitution?

We conclude that the answer is yes. Arkansas Code Annotated section 27-37-703 is unconstitutional.

According to the district court's order, the certified question arises from a car accident that occurred on August 1, 2011, on Interstate 630 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Petitioner Corina Mendoza was a passenger in the backseat of a vehicle operated by respondent Anthony Adams when Adams fell asleep at the wheel and ran into the back of a parked excavator. Mendoza filed an amended complaint seeking damages for significant and permanent personal injury. Mendoza alleged that Adams was acting in the course of his employment with respondents WIS International, Inc., and Washington Inventory Services, Inc. (collectively "WIS"), at the time of the accident. WIS and Adams filed answers and pled the affirmative defense of comparative fault, specifically including Mendoza's failure to wear a seat belt at the time of the accident.

WIS and Adams filed motions in the district court challenging the constitutionality of section 27-37-703 on the basis that the statute purports to limit or otherwise dictate what evidence is admissible at trial and is, therefore, unconstitutional. The arguments of Adams and WIS are based on article 4, § 2 and amendment 80, § 3 of the Arkansas Constitution. They contend that, under amendment 80, § 3 of the Arkansas Constitution and the separation-of-powers doctrine, section 27-37-703 is unconstitutional. Specifically, respondents argue that section 27-37-703(a)(1) is unconstitutional because it is a legislative attempt to impose a rule of evidence. American Trucking Associations, Inc., and Arkansas Trucking Association, Inc., filed amicus curiae briefs asserting that the statute is unconstitutional. The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association filed an amicus brief asserting that the statute is constitutional.

It is well settled that there is a presumption of validity attending every consideration of a statute's constitutionality; every act carries a strong presumption of constitutionality, and before an act will be held unconstitutional, the incompatibility between it and the constitution must be clear. Johnson v. Rockwell Automation, Inc., 2009 Ark. 241, 308 S.W.3d 135 (citing Shipp v. Franklin, 370 Ark. 262, 258 S.W.3d 744 (2007)). Any doubt as to the constitutionality of a statute must be resolved in favor of its constitutionality. See id. The heavy burden of demonstrating the unconstitutionality is upon the one attacking it. See id. Finally, when possible, we will construe a statute so that it is constitutional. See id.

In determining the constitutionality of the statutes, we look to the rules of statutory construction. Johnson, 2009 Ark. 241, 308 S.W.3d 135 . When construing a statute, the basic rule is to give effect to the intent of the legislature. Id. (citing Rose v. Ark. State Plant Bd., 363 Ark. 281, 213 S.W.3d 607 (2005)). Where the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous, we determine the legislative intent from the ordinary meaning of the language used. See id. In considering the meaning of a statute, we construe it just as it reads, giving the words their ordinary and usually accepted meaning in common language. See id.

As a threshold issue, Mendoza asserts that respondents' motions challenging the constitutionality of section 27-37-703 are premature. She contends that this matter is not ripe because respondents did not introduce evidence of her nonuse of a seat belt. Respondents argue in their briefs that they cannot introduce evidence of Mendoza's nonuse of a seat belt because it is prohibited by section 27-37-703(a)(1), thereby placing respondents in a "catch-22" situation. We accepted the request from the district court to determine the certified question of whether section 27-37-703 is unconstitutional. We have not been asked to determine whether respondents' motions are premature; therefore, we will not address Mendoza's argument on this point.

We now turn to respondents' challenge to the constitutionality of section 27-37-703, which provides as follows:

(a)(1) The failure of an occupant to wear a properly adjusted and fastened seat belt shall not be admissible into evidence in a civil action.
(2) Provided, that evidence of the failure may be admitted in a civil action as to the causal relationship between noncompliance and the injuries alleged, if the following conditions have been satisfied:
(A) The plaintiff has filed a products liability claim other than a claim related to an alleged failure of a seat belt;
(B) The defendant alleging noncompliance with this subchapter shall raise this defense in its answer or timely amendment thereto in accordance with the rules of civil procedure; and
(C) Each defendant seeking to offer evidence alleging noncompliance has the burden of proving:
(i) Noncompliance;
(ii) That compliance would have reduced injuries; and
(iii) The extent of the reduction of the injuries.
(b)(1) Upon request of any party, the trial judge shall hold a hearing out of the presence of the jury as to the admissibility of such evidence in accordance with the provisions of this section and the rules of evidence.
(2) The finding of the trial judge shall not constitute a finding of fact, and the finding shall be limited to the issue of admissibility of such evidence.

Ark. Code Ann. § 27-37-703 (Repl. 2014).

Mendoza argues that the statute is a matter of substantive law, defining what is negligent for purposes of comparative fault and is therefore within the province of the legislature. She asserts that section 27-37-703 is a substantive alteration to the law of comparative fault or contributory negligence and not rules of pleading, practice, or procedure. Respondents assert that the statute is a matter of procedural law, which is exclusively in this court's domain.

Law is substantive when it is "[t]he part of the law that creates, defines, and regulates the rights, duties, and powers of the parties." See Johnson, 2009 Ark. at 8, 308 S.W.3d at 141 (quoting Summerville v. Thrower, 369 Ark. 231, 237, 253 S.W.3d 415, 419–20 (2007) (citing Black's Law Dictionary 1443 (7th ed. 1999))). Procedural law is defined as "[t]he rules that prescribe the steps for having a right or duty judicially enforced, as opposed to the law that defines the specific rights or duties themselves." Summerville, 369 Ark. at 237, 253 S.W.3d at 420 (citing Black's Law Dictionary 1221 (7th ed. 1999)).

It is undisputed that the rules of evidence are "rules of pleading, practice and procedure." See Johnson, 2009 Ark. 241, at 10, 308 S.W.3d at 142. We have held that the rules of evidence fall within this court's domain. See id., 308 S.W.3d 135 (citing Ricarte v. State, 290 Ark. 100, 717 S.W.2d 488 (1986)). Accordingly, under our holding in Johnson, if the statute is a rule of evidence, then it violates separation of powers and is unconstitutional. In Johnson, we held that the nonparty provision of Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-55-212(b), which limited the evidence that may be introduced at trial relating to the value of medical expenses, was unconstitutional. ...


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