Picaso v. Tucson Unified School District – 12/13/2007

December 4, 2007

Arizona Supreme Court Vacates Decision by Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two, Which Held that a Guilty Plea in a Criminal Case Does Not Result in Issue Preclusion Against a Plaintiff in Later Civil Litigation.

Plaintiff Maribel Picaso pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse stemming from the death of her son, who was struck and killed by a school bus. The Plaintiff mother and her husband later brought a wrongful death action against the school district. The trial court, relying on A.R.S. § 13-807, granted the school district’s motion in limine to preclude the mother from denying the essential allegations of her guilty plea. At trial, the jury found in favor of the defendant school district.

On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial, holding that A.R.S. § 13-807 did not apply because it only spoke to civil actions in which the criminal defendant is later the civil defendant — not, as here, the civil plaintiff. The Court of Appeals also rejected the trial court’s alternative ground of issue preclusion, reasoning that there is no “actual litigation” below when a criminal defendant pleads guilty.

After granting review, the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ opinion but declined to decide whether a guilty plea in a criminal case has issue preclusive effect in a subsequent civil action. The Court held that, in light of the trial court’s jury instructions and the jury’s unanimous defense verdict, the result at trial would not have changed had the trial court denied the motion in limine. Because the jury found that the school district had no fault in the boy’s death, the jury never had occasion to consider questions of comparative fault, and any preclusive effect of the criminal guilty plea therefore could not have affected the jury’s defense verdict.