Guerra v. State of Arizona – 5/6/2014

May 27, 2014

Arizona Court of Appeals Holds That the State Owes a Duty of Reasonable Care When Officers Notify a Decedent’s Family of the Decedent’s Death, Meaning That Family’s Negligence Claim Arising from Mistaken Identification May Proceed.

A vehicle with five passengers crashed when a rear tire failed and the vehicle rolled.  Two female passengers were ejected during the crash; authorities pronounced one of the women dead at the scene.  The four other passengers were airlifted to a hospital.  Officers and hospital staff were able to identify three of the four surviving passengers but were initially not certain who the fourth survivor was.  The names of the two unidentified women were M.C. and April Guerra, and they were similar in age and appearance.  Eventually, a charge nurse identified the surviving woman as M.C.  As a result of the identification, officers informed April’s family that she had died in the accident.  Over the next two days, however, it became clear that the identification was not correct. April survived and M.C. did not.

The Guerras later sued the State, alleging negligence, negligent training, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The State moved for summary judgment on all claims; the Guerras cross-moved on the issue of duty, arguing that the State owed a duty of reasonable care when notifying next of kin of a death.  The trial court granted the State’s motion and denied the Guerras’.  The Guerras appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.  As to the duty of care, the Court held that the State owes a duty of reasonable care when it opts to notify the next of kin of a death.  A duty of care “may arise from a special relationship based on contract, family relations, or conduct undertaken by the defendant.”  Gipson v. Kasey, 214 Ariz. 141, 144, 150 P.3d 228, 230 (2007).  In an earlier case, the Court of Appeals held that the State did not owe a duty to identify a homicide victim.  See Morton v. Maricopa County, 177 Ariz. 147, 865 P.2d 808 (App. 1993).  Latching on to this and similar authority, the State argued that the State owes no duty of care in connection with the identification of crime or accident victim.  The Court disagreed, reasoning that the duty of care arises when law enforcement in fact does assume the responsibility to notify next of kin, it also undertakes a duty to do so with reasonable care.  Thus, because officers opted to notify next of kin, they owed a duty of reasonable care when notifying the Guerras.

The Court also disagreed with the State that a duty of care is inconsistent with public policy.  First, the Court reasoned that the primary purpose of the notification of next of kin was “to benefit specific, individual survivors, rather than the public at large.” Second, the Court dismissed the State’s concern that this duty of care would prompt a “flood of litigation.”  The Court emphasized the narrow scope of the duty, noting that the duty of care only exists when the underlying investigation into identity is complete and “law enforcement undertakes the affirmative act of communicating notice of a person’s death to survivors.”

Thus, because the State owed a duty of care when it notified the Guerras, the Court reversed summary judgment on the negligence claim.

The Court affirmed summary judgment for the State on the other claims.  As to the negligent training claim, the Court explained that although the evidence may support a negligence claim for how the notification occurred, no evidence indicated that the training the officers received was negligent.  As to emotional distress, the Court agreed that the evidence could not support liability.  The Court concluded that, as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could find that the conduct here was sufficiently “extreme and outrageous.”  The evidence was that the officers “were attempting to provide information to help the family.” Even if that information turned out to be wrong due to negligence, all evidence indicated that the officers acted in good faith based on what the hospital’s charge nurse told them.

Judge Jones authored the unanimous opinion; Judges Swann and Norris concurred.