Kohl v. City of Phoenix – 6/11/2007

June 15, 2007

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That City Cannot Be Liable for Its Administrative Decision to not Install A Traffic Light At An Intersection.

Klay Kohl was struck and killed by an automobile while crossing a Phoenix intersection. His parents, the petitioners, sued the city claiming that the absence of a traffic light at the intersection caused their child’s death. In the years before the fatal accident the city repeatedly analyzed the intersection as a candidate for a signal using a computer model called SIGWAR that ranks intersections based on six federal criteria for signalization.

The superior court granted summary judgment to the city holding that its decision to use the SIGWAR program was immune from suit under A.R.S. § 12-820.01(A)(2). The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment holding that the City could be liable if its decision to not place a traffic signal at the intersection was a result of faulty data collection or input into the SIGWAR program. On remand, the superior court granted summary judgment to the city holding that any failure to signalize the intersection resulted from the adoption of the SIGWAR program not from any “operational failure.” The Court of Appeals again reversed and remanded. The Supreme Court granted review and vacated the lower court’s decision.

Justice Hurwitz wrote the majority decision in which Justices Berch and Bales joined. The majority first held that the city’s decision to use SIGWAR was “fundamental policymaking” and thus could not form the basis of liability under A.R.S. § 12-820.01(A)(2). The City’s failure to place a signal at the intersection was the product of the city’s immune decision to adopt SIGWAR because: (1) the SIGWAR program never ranked the particular intersection highly enough for it to receive more detailed evaluation from the city’s traffic engineers; and (2) because there was no claim that the city made any operational decision which resulted in the intersection being omitted from list of intersections which received further consideration. See Myers v. City of Tempe, 212 Ariz. 128, 131, 128 P.3d 751, 754 (2006) (holding that decision “follow[ing] automatically” from immune policy decision was also immune).

Chief Justice McGregor wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Ryan that supported a broader view of absolute immunity under A.R.S. § 12-820.01(A)(2). Under this analysis, the city’s decision where to install traffic signals is a discretionary governmental decision constituting the determination of fundamental governmental policy and is therefore always immune from suit.