Backus v. State – 7/17/2008

July 23, 2008

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds that Arizona’s Notice of Claim Statute, A.R.S. § 12-821.01, Merely Requires that a Plaintiff’s Claim Letter Provide Any Facts Supporting a Proposed Settlement Amount.

After Gerald Dunford died while incarcerated by the Arizona Department of Corrections, his daughter, Shannon Backus, sent a notice of claim letter to the State.  At the time of his passing, Dunford had a life expectancy of twenty-three years, and so Backus requested a settlement amount of $21,500 for each of those years, which totaled $500,000.  In a separate case, Rosemary Johnson sent a claim letter to the State after her daughter fell ill in Arizona prison and died.  Johnson requested a settlement amount of $2 million.  Both Backus and Johnson filed lawsuits against the State after receiving no response to their claim letters.  The State moved to dismiss both cases, attaching the claim letters and arguing that Backus and Johnson failed to comply with A.R.S. § 12-821.01.  The trial court granted the State’s motion in both cases.  This appeal followed.

Arizona’s notice of claim statute requires that “[t]he claim shall also contain a specific amount for which the claim can be settled and the facts supporting that amount.”  The Arizona Appeals Court first explained that the trial court should have treated both motions to dismiss as motions for summary judgment because the notices were not part of the complaints and were instead attached to the State’s motions to dismiss.  Next, the court held that a claim letter contains enough facts to comply with the statute when the letter provides any facts to support the proposed settlement amount.  In doing so, the court declined to create a judicial standard against which all claim letters can be measured, pointing out that each claim is different.  The court instructed that if a governmental entity desires additional factual information, it can simply ask for it.  Finally, the court concluded that Backus and Johnson’s letters satisfied the notice of claim statute because both letters contained some facts supporting their proposed settlement amounts.

Judge Winthrop authored the opinion; Judges Orozco and Snow concurred.