Swift Transp. Co. of Ariz. LLC v. Carman – 8/23/2022

November 14, 2022

Arizona Supreme Court holds that a claim for punitive damages in a negligence case requires clear and convincing proof that the defendant consciously pursued a course of conduct that created a substantial risk of significant injury to others.

After a truck driver caused a fatal car crash, the victims’ families filed suit in superior court against the trucking company for negligence based on a theory of respondeat superior.  The families later filed a motion requesting the trucking company’s financial records for the purpose of seeking punitive damages.  The superior court found that the families had made a prima face case for punitive damages based on the truck driver’s conscious disregard of the unjustifiable substantial risk of significant harm to others and granted the motion.

The trucking company petitioned for special action claiming that a prima face claim for punitive damages in a negligence case requires proof of aggravated or outrageous conduct.  The court of appeals accepted jurisdiction, found that the record provided adequate support for the superior court’s finding, and denied relief.

The Arizona Supreme Court granted review and reversed.  Reaffirming its decisions in Rawlings v. Apodaca, 151 Ariz. 149 (1986), Linthicum v. Nationwide Life Insurance Co., 150 Ariz. 326 (1986), and Volz v. Coleman Co., 155 Ariz. 567 (1987), the Court held that a claim for punitive damages requires proof that the defendant’s conduct was either intended to cause harm, motivated by spite or ill will, or outrageous.  Proof of negligence, gross negligence, or recklessness alone will not suffice.  There must also be proof of an “evil mind.”  Proving an evil mind in a negligence case requires clear and convincing evidence that the defendant engaged in “outrageous, oppressive or intolerable” conduct that “created a substantial risk of tremendous harm,” thereby demonstrating a “conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests and rights of others.”  Such a standard limits the availability of punitive damages to “only the most egregious cases.”  Proof of criminal conduct is not required; however, “it will be only the rare negligence case that meets this standard.”

Chief Justice Brutinel authored the opinion, in which Vice Chief Justice Timmer, and Justices Bolick, Lopez, Beene, and Montgomery joined.

Posted by: Matthew Stanford