Estate of DeSela v. Prescott Unified School District – 1/18/2011

January 25, 2011

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Right to Recover for Injuries Sustained Before Age Eighteen Belong to Both the Parent and the Injured Child, Though Double Recovery is Barred.

Maddison DeSela sustained a serious head injury on school property when she was 15 years old.  Under the common law rule at the time, as expressed in Pearson &Dickerson Contractors, Inc. v. Harrington, 60 Ariz. 354, 137 P.2d 381 (1943) and S. A. Gerrard Co. v. Couch, 43 Ariz. 57, 29 P.2d 151 (1934), the right to recover for the injuries sustained as a minor belonged to the child’s parents, though injured children could recover other damages such as pain and suffering and post-majority medical expenses.  Maddison’s parents assigned to Maddison their rights to recover for her pre-majority injuries eighty-two days after the accident.  Maddison filed a notice of claim with the District within the 180-day period prescribed by A.R.S. § 12-821.01(A).

Maddison filed an action against the District more than two years after the accident, but within one year of her eighteenth birthday.  Actions against public entities must be brought within one year of accrual, A.R.S. § 12-821, but a minor may bring an action that accrues during childhood within one year after turning eighteen, A.R.S. § 12-502.  The trial court dismissed the claim, reasoning that the assignee stands in the shoes of the assignor and therefore the one-year statute of limitations that applied to the parents had not been changed by the assignment.  The court of appeals reversed, holding that the assignment tolled the statute of limitations.  The District petitioned for review, arguing that the parents’ statute of limitations should apply or, alternatively, that the tolling should be reduced by the eighty-two-day gap between accrual and assignment.

The Arizona Supreme Court reached the same result as the court of appeals but did so on alternative grounds argued for the first time before the Court: that the right to bring suit for childhood injuries belongs equally to the child and the parents.  Noting that the common law has evolved since Gerrard’s expression of the parent-child relationship in “economic terms,” the Court cited more recent cases holding that the “master-servant analogy” to the parent-child relationship no longer applies.

The Court went on to consider and reject other rationales the old common law rule.  While conceding that the old rule encouraged speedy litigation by applying a shorter statute of limitations, the Court noted that this advantage is outweighed by the disadvantage of encouraging piecemeal litigation, as parents sued for childhood injuries and the injured child brought other claims after reaching adulthood.  The Court also recognized that the common law rule properly prevented double recovery, but retained that advantage by holding that double recovery is not permitted.

The Court explicitly overruled Pearson and Gerrard to the extent that they conflict with this opinion and vacated the opinion of the court of appeals.

Justice Bales authored the opinion for the unanimous Court.