Mendoza v. WIS International Inc et al
OPINION ARKANSAS SUPREME COURT re 54 Per Curiam Order, 49 Certification of Issue to State Court,. Signed by Stacy Pectol, Clerk of the Arkansas Supreme Court on 5/3/2016. (mcz)
fi' ( ._,. \! _r-
2u !ll i 1:·.:
r " ;~•
BY: _ _ _ _ _ _ __.....CERTIFIED QUESTION ANSWERED
PROCEEDINGS OF APRIL 14, 2016
SUPREME COURT CASE NO. CV-15-677
V. CERTIFIED QUESTION FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS, WESTERN DIVISION
WIS INTERNATIONAL, INC., ANTHONY ADAMS, AND
WASHINGTON INVENTORY SERVICES, INC.
THIS CERTIFIED QUESTION WAS SUBMITTED TO THE ARKANSAS SUPREME
COURT ON THE RECORD OF THE UNITED STATE DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF ARKANSAS, WESTERN DIVISION, AND BRIEFS OF THE
RESPECTIVE PARTIES. AFTER DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS THE DECISION OF THE
COURT THAT THE CERTIFIED QUESTION IS ANSWERED AS SET OUT IN THE
BAKER, HART, AND WOOD, JJ., DISSENT.
IN TESTIMONY, THAT THE ABOVE IS A TRUE AND CORRECT COPY OF THE
JUDGMENT OF THE ARKANSAS SUPREME COURT, I, STACEY PECTOL,
CLERK, SET MY HAND AND AFFIX MY OFFICIAL SEAL, ON THIS 3RD DAY OF
SUPREME COURT OF ARKANSAS
April 14, 2016
CERTIFIED QUESTION FROM THE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF
ARKANSAS, WESTERN DIVISION
ANT H 0 NY
SER VICES, INC.
HONORABLE JAMES M. MOODY,JR.
CERTIFIED QUESTION ANSWERED.
PAULE. DANIELSON, Associate Justice
This case involves a question oflaw 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
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
We conclude that the answer is yes. Arkansas Code Annotated section 27-37-703 is
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
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 27-3 7-703 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 scparation-ofpowers 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 cunac briefs asserting that the statute is unconstitutional. The Arkansas Trial
Lawyers Association filed ;m 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. Joh11son v. Rockwell Automatio11, Inc., 2009 Ark. 241, 308 S.W.3d 135 (citing
Shipp u. Fra11klin, 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 detem1ine 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 non use 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 "catch22" situation. We accepted the request from the district court to detem1ine 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:
(ii) That compliance would have reduced injuries; and
(iii) The extent of the reduction of the injuries.
(b)(l) 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
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
Law is substantive when it is "[tJhe 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 inJohnson, if
the statute is a rule of evidence, then it violates separation of powers and is unconstitutional.
In Johnson, we held that the non party provision of Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-55212(b ), which limited the evidence that may be introduced at trial relating to the value of
medical expenses, was unconstitutional. We held that the provision clearly dictated what
evidence is admissible and therefore found the statute to be unconstitutional. The statute in
Johnson provided as follows:
Any evidence of damages for the costs of any necessary medical care, treatment, or
services received shall include only those costs actually paid by or on behalf of the
plaintiff or which remain unpaid and for which the plaintiff or any third party shal1 be
2009 Ark. 241, at 10, 308 S.W.3d at 142 (emphasis in original) (quoting Ark. Code Ann.
§ 16-55-212(b) (Supp. 2003)).
In Jolmson, we held that because the provision clearly limited the evidence that may
be introduced relating to the value of medical expenses, thereby dictating what evidence is
admissible, the statute violated the separation-of-powers doctrine. Johnson, 2009 Ark. 241,
308 S.W.3d 135. In the seat-belt statute, section 27-37-703(a), the trial court is given the
discretion to determine whether evidence is admissible in product-liability actions only and
is barred from detemlining admissibility in other actions.
Mendoza contends that section 27-37-703 is a matter of substantive law defining what
is negligence for purposes of comparative fault. In support of her contention, Mendoza relies
on Potts v. Benjamin, 882 F.2d 1320 (8th Cir. 1989), where the Eighth Circuit held that a
statute modifying the content of state tort-law doctrines of contributory and comparative
negligence was a classic example of"the type of substantive rule oflaw binding upon a federal
court in a diversity case." Id. at 1324. In Potts, the Eighth Circuit addressed Arkansas Code
Annotated section 27-34-106, the statute regarding the use of evidence of failure to place
children in child-restraint seats. The Eighth Circuit stated that section 27-34-106 established
a rule of substantive law.
·However, section 27-34-106 is distinguishable from section 27-37-703. The seat-belt
statute states that evidence of nomtse may not be admitted, whereas section 27-34-106
provides that the failure to place children in child-restraint seats may not be admitted as
evidence of comparative or contributory negligence.
Moreover, section 27-37-703 originally contained the same language found in the
child-restraint statute. In 1991, section 27-37-703 provided in part as follows:
The failure to provide or use a seat belt shall not be considered under any
circumstances as evidence of comparative or contributory negligence, nor shall such
failure be admissible as evidence in the trial of any civil action with regard to
In 1995 Ark. Acts 1118, the language "shall not be considered under any circumstances as
evidence of comparative or contributory negligence" and "with regard to negligence" was
removed from section 27-37-703 by the legislature. However, the analogous language found
in the child safety-seat statute was not removed.
Mendoza also argues that even if section 27-37-703 is strictly a rule of evidence, it is
still valid based on Rule 402 of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence, which reads "all relevant
evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by statute or by these rules or by other
rules applicable in the courts of this State." Mendoza contends that Rule 402 specifically
empowers the legislature to determine relevance by statute and that the legislature properly
exercised this power in the seat-belt statute. Mendoza relies on our holding in Bedell v.
Williams, 2012 Ark. 75, 386 S. W .3d 493, wherein this court considered the constitutionality
of a statute giving medical-care providers the privilege to refuse to testify as to certain matters.
The issue in Bedell was whether Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-114-207 was
unconstitutional. In Bedell, we held the following:
This court has specifically given the General Assembly the power to enact statutes
regarding testimonial privilege. See Ark. R. Evid. 501 (no person has a privilege to
refuse to testify or prevent another from being a witness "except as otherwise provided
by constitution or statute") (emphasis added). Therefore, this section does not violate
the separation-of-powers doctrine.
Bedell, 2012 Ark. 75, at 17. 386 S.W.3d at 505. Mendoza asserts that our holding regarding
Rule 501 should be applied to Rule 402, with the end result being that the legislature is
empowered to determine relevance by statute based on the language "except as otherwise
provided by statute." Ark. R. Evid. 402. Mendoza's argument contradicts our holding in
Johnson that the legislature cannot enact a statute that "clearly limits the evidence that may be
introduced." Johnson, 2009 Ark. 241, at 11, 308 S.W.3d at 142.
Bedell and Johnson arc distinguishable. We have previously ruled that a statute granting
a privilege is substantive law. See Cato v. Craighead Cnty. Circuit Court, 2009 Ark. 334, at 9,
322 S.W.3d 484, 489 (2009) (holding that a statute granted a "privilege" to members of the
organized militia serving military duty by granting them exemption from civil process). We
held that the creation of such a privilege was substantive legislation.
In Rule 501 of the Arkansas Rules of Evidence, we granted the legislature the
authority to enact statutes regarding privilege because the power of the legislature to enact
statutes regarding privilege is substantive law and does not conflict with amendment 80 and
the sep:mHion-of-powers doctrine. Rule 402, however, is procedural in that it dictates what
evidence is relevant. Just as we will not interpret a statutory provision so as to reach an absurd
result, neither will we interpret a court mle in such a manner. Jo11esboro Healthcare Ctr., LLC
v. Eaton-Moery Envtl. Servs., Inc., 2011 Ark. 501, 385 S.W.3d 797. If we were to grant
authority to the legislature to determine the relevancy of evidence in court proceedings, we
would be depriving the trial courts of their exclusive authority to determine the relevancy of
evidence. Such an interpretation of Rule 402 would create an absurd result. 1
Prior to the passage of amendment 80, this court and the legislature shared authority
to prescribe procedure. Curtis v. State, 301 Ark. 208, 783 S.W.2d 47 (1990). In State v.
Sypult, 304 Ark. 5, 7, 800 S.W.2d 402, 404 (1990), we held that when conflicts arise between
legislation and rules of evidence and procedure, "our rules remain supreme." Conversely,
since the passage of amendment 80, we held that "so long as a legislative provision dictates
procedure, that provision need not directly conflict with our procedural rules to be
unconstitutional. This is because rules regarding pleading, practice, and procedure are solely
the responsibility of this court." Johnson, 2009 Ark. 241, at 8, 308 S.W.3d at 141.
The seat-belt statute is procedural and therefore offends the principle of separation of
powers and the powers specifically prescribed to this court by amendment 80. See Johnson.
Accordingly, we hold that Arkansas Code Annotated section 27-37-703 violates separation
'We request our Civil Practice Committee to review Rule 402 in light of this opinion.
To the extent that any other rules of evidence conflict withjolmson v. Rockwell, we refer those
mies to the Committee for review as well.
of powers under article 4, § 2 and amendment 80. § 3 of the Arkansas Constitution and is
Certified question answered.
BAKER, HART, and WOOD, JJ., dissent.
SUPREME COURT OF ARKANSAS
April 14, 2016
KAREN R. BAKER, Associate Justice
Based on the record before the court, I cannot join the m
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?