Morales v. Coffey – 8/10/2023

September 5, 2023

On special action review, Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that A.R.S. § 12-820.03(B) is constitutional and thus in a negligent design and maintenance case against the State, a trial court must bifurcate the trial to first determine whether the State is entitled to immunity before addressing liability and damages.

A driver died after she lost control of her vehicle and collided with an oncoming semi-truck.  Her statutory beneficiaries brought a wrongful death action against the State.  The State asserted an affirmative defense under A.R.S. § 12-820.03(A), which precludes liability for injuries arising out of negligent design or maintenance of transportation facilities.  Part (B) of the same statute requires the superior court to first resolve the issue of whether the affirmative defense applies separately and before a trial on the merits.  Accordingly, the superior court bifurcated the trial into two parts: (1) whether the State may rely on the affirmative defense provision and (2) the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims.  Plaintiffs filed a petition for special action relief. 

The issue in dispute was the constitutionality of the bifurcation provision.  The superior court determined it lacked discretion over whether to bifurcate the trial.  Finding the question presented to be purely legal and an issue of first impression, the Court of Appeals accepted jurisdiction and affirmed.  Analyzing the Arizona Constitution’s rulemaking clause, Article 6, Section 5(5), which grants the Supreme Court procedural rulemaking authority, and the immunity clause, Article 4, part 2, Section 18, the court found that the legislature may properly direct trial proceedings for suits brought against the State.  Similarly, the court found no conflict between the bifurcation provision and Rule of Civil Procedure 42 because both serve the interests of judicial economy and efficiency. 

Judge Perkins authored the opinion, in which Judges Paton and Williams joined.

Posted by: Sarah Pook Lawson