Sanchez v. Maricopa Cnty. – 12/7/2023

January 5, 2024

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that Maricopa County cannot be held vicariously liable for tortious activities of Sheriff’s deputy.

A driver sued Maricopa County for injuries she suffered when a Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy rear-ended her car on the freeway. The driver alleged the County was vicariously liable for the deputy’s negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior.

The trial court dismissed the complaint, finding the County lacked the requisite level of control over the Sheriff or his deputies necessary to create vicarious liability.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that vicarious liability requires a principal-agent relationship in which the principal controls, or has the right to control, the duties and actions of the agent. Such is not the case with the County and the Sheriff because the Sheriff is an elected official whose duties are created and controlled by statute and the constitution, not County action.

The Court rejected the driver’s broad reading of Arizona’s statutes outlining the County’s supervisory role with respect to “county officers.” Read in context, the statutes did not create a broad, “at-all-times right of control” in the County, but rather applied in the narrow context of the County’s fiscal oversight. Such restrained oversight, the Court held, does not create the principal-agent relationship required to hold the County responsible for the Sheriff’s conduct.

The Court also found that Arizona’s statutes governing claims against public employees and entities do not create a viable cause of action against the County for the Sheriff deputy’s tortious conduct. First, the Court rejected the driver’s assertion that, as “public employees” under the statute, Sheriff deputies are necessarily employed by a “public entity,” which here must be the County. Instead, the Court found that a duly elected natural person, such as the Sheriff, constitutes a “public entity” under the statute. Second, the Court rejected the argument that the notice-of-claim statutes create an independent cause of action to sue a public employee or entity. Rather, the statutes govern the process required to pursue claims that already exist under the law.

Finally, the Court rejected the driver’s contention that the County was the proper defendant because any suit against the Sheriff’s Office was legally barred, leaving her without remedy. The Court noted that plaintiffs can and do sue “the relevant sheriff” for tortious conduct.

Judge Furuya authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Judge Gass and Judge  Jacobs joined.

Posted by: Payslie M. Bowman