Posted Mar 2023
Two years after granting review, the Arizona Supreme Court issued its opinion in Swift Transportation Co. v. Mountz et al. This is a trucking accident case where plaintiffs alleged a driver’s negligent acts when added up support a punitive damage claim. Plaintiff sought discovery on the defendant’s financial status. These acts included: driving in the rain with the Jake Brake engaged, using cruise control while pulling an empty trailer, knowing an empty trailer is more likely to hydroplane, driving too fast for the conditions, impaired visibility, failure to slow down on a downhill curve, passing on the right while going downhill, talking on his hands-free phone, failure to warn other drivers after the accident etc.
The Arizona Supreme Court clarifies the punitive damage standard is not met by evidence of cumulative negligent acts, gross negligence, or even reckless indifference. The so-called “evil mind” is only shown by intentional wrongful conduct or criminal conduct. In a negligence case, “outrageous” conduct is required, and the court explains it will be a rare negligence case where this standard is met. “Although it is enough that the defendant had reason to know of the facts creating a substantial risk, it is not enough that a defendant had reason to appreciate the severity of the risk; the defendant must have actually appreciated the severity of the risk before consciously disregarding it.” Id. at ¶ 25. This is the subjective “evil mind” standard.
This opinion strengthens prior cases limiting punitive damages and supports our reading of the relevant cases since Rawlings v. Apodaca, 151 Ariz. 149 (1986) and Volz v. Coleman Co., 155 Ariz. 567 (1987). Over many years, however, lower courts have watered down the “evil mind” standard relying upon the “substantial risk of significant harm” language. The Arizona Supreme Court cites only one appellate decision. Saucedo ex rel. Sinaloa v. Salvation Army, 200 Ariz. 179 (App. 2001) (rejecting punitive damage claim after driver fled accident; conduct must be the proximate cause of injury). Although the court does not specifically identify inconsistent appellate court decisions, here is my own list: Belliard v. Becker, 216 Ariz. 356 (App. 2007) (allowing punitive damage claim based on .03 bac level although law enforcement determined driver was not impaired); Quintero v. Rodgers, 221 Ariz. 536 (App. 2009) (allowing punitive damage claim based on a plea to reckless driving); Newman v. Select Specialty Hospital, 239 Ariz. 558 (App. 2016) (allowing punitive damages based on failure to document wound assessments); and Purdy v. Metcalf, 502 P.3d 36 (App. 2021) (allowing punitive damages based on speculative evidence of phone use, driving with cruise control, and driving from the right side). This opinion sends a message to lower courts. Follow the court’s precedent. Punitive damages in negligence cases require outrageous conduct and rarely if ever, will a negligence case meet this standard. . . .
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