Picaso v. Tucson Unified School District – 2/13/2007

February 14, 2007

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Holds that Mother Who Pleaded Guilty to Misdemeanor Child Abuse for Accidental Death of Her Son and Later Sued for Wrongful Death May Dispute that Her Negligence Was a Cause of the Boy’s Death and May Explain Why She Accepted the Guilty Plea.

A fourteen-month-old boy was struck and killed by a school bus in the street in front of his house. His mother (“Mother”) pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse because the boy was outside unsupervised. She and her husband (“Plaintiffs”) later sued the school district for wrongful death. The trial court ruled that evidence of the plea was admissible against Mother and that A.R.S. § 13-807 precluded Mother from denying that her negligence was a cause of the boy’s death. At trial, the court precluded Mother from presenting evidence explaining why she pleaded guilty and instructed the jury that Mother’s negligence was a cause of the boy’s death. The jury returned a verdict for the school district. In a motion for a new trial, Plaintiffs argued the court had erred by precluding Mother from presenting evidence denying the elements of the misdemeanor offense or explaining her reasons for pleading guilty. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial, ruling that the evidence was properly precluded under either § 13-807, or under common law claim preclusion, and to prevent “a waste of time or confusion of the issues for the jury.”

The Court of Appeals reversed, finding the trial court erred by precluding Mother from contradicting or explaining her reasons for accepting the guilty plea. Section 13-807 was not applicable by its own terms. The statue precludes a defendant convicted in a criminal proceeding from subsequently denying the essential allegations of the criminal offense in a civil proceeding brought by the state or the victim against the criminal defendant. Here, however, the convicted criminal defendant, Mother, was a plaintiff, not a defendant, in the subsequent civil action.

The court found, as an issue of first impression for Arizona, that a criminal guilty plea does not provide a basis for common law issue preclusion in a subsequent civil suit because the question of guilt is not actually litigated. The court ruled, consistent with the Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 27 cmt. e (1982), that an opposite ruling would, contrary to public policy, discourage plea bargains. The court rejected the claim that its holding was an “open invitation to criminals who plead guilty to sue others for the results of their own crimes” because the guilty plea and surrounding facts remain admissible, and will “prevent recovery” in most situations. Rule 403, Ariz. R. Evid. (allowing exclusion of evidence to prevent a waste of time or confusion of the issues) did not justify the trial court’s ruling to exclude the offered evidence because the issue of whether Mother was a cause of her son’s death was not “collateral,” and because the court had not merely excluded the evidence, but had instructed the jury what to find on that factual issue. Because the trial court’s ruling was broad and was based on preclusion, not on the rules of evidence, no offer of proof was necessary under Rule 103(a)(2), Ariz. R. Evid., to preserve the claim of error.

Presiding Judge Howard wrote the opinion, Judge Pelander and Judge Vásquez concurred.