Sunland Dairy LLC v. Milky Way Dairy, LLC (3/18/2021)

March 24, 2021

Arizona Court of Appeals holds that A.R.S. §§ 3-1304 and 3-1307, which provide for treble damages for the conversion of animals, provide private rights of action in addition to criminal liability.

Two dairy farms, Sunland and Milky Way, entered a contract.  Sunland would transfer newborn calves—marked with identifying tags—to Milky Way, and Milky Way would buy the male calves and raise the female calves.  Sunland would then pay Milky Way for the cost of raising the females, minus the amount Milky Way owed for the males.  After Milky Way removed the calves’ tags, however, it could not identify Sunland’s calves.  Because of Milky Way’s faulty accounting, Sunland did not reimburse Milky Way for the calves’ care, and Milky Way failed to return 519 calves to Sunland.  Sunland sued Milky Way for conversion and treble damages under A.R.S. §§ 3-1304 and 3-1307.  The jury found for Sunland.  The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.

Section 3-1304 states that “[a] person who . . . effaces, defaces, alters or obliterates any brand or mark upon any animal, with intent to convert the animal to his own use, is guilty of a class 4 felony and is liable to the owner of the animal for three times the value thereof.”  Section 3-1307 provides “for damages equal to three times the value of such animal or animals” involved.  The Court of Appeals held that these statutes provide for a private cause of action—not only criminal liability—because they contemplate treble damages, a hallmark of civil liability, and refer to an individual’s liability rather than focusing solely on a crime.

The Court also held that the superior court properly instructed the jury consistent with the “highest intermediate value” measure of damages, a measure particularly appropriate for property that fluctuates in value.  Under that measure, the jury could determine the actual value of Sunland’s losses by considering the value of the converted calves as they matured up until the point when Sunland discovered the conversion. 

Judge Morse authored the opinion of the court, in which Judge Cruz and Judge McMurdie joined.