Viniegra v. Town of Parker Municipal Property Corp. – 10/6/2016

November 2, 2016

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a public entity’s request for a notice of claim does not toll the one-year statute of limitations applicable to public entities, and the one-year statute of limitations is constitutional.

Plaintiff slipped and fell at a town-owned property, suffering severe injuries.  The town solicited a notice of claim from Viniegra and opened the claim but never responded to the claim.  Almost two years after the date of injury, Plaintiff sued for negligence and claimed that the town’s conduct created an implied promise that the claim would be resolved without Plaintiff filing a lawsuit.  The town filed a motion to dismiss the action as time-barred by A.R.S. § 12-821, which imposes a one-year statute of limitations for claims against public entities.  The superior court granted the motion, and Plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that the doctrine of equitable estoppel did not apply to the town’s solicitation of a notice of claim.  A defendant may be equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense if the defendant makes specific threats, promises, or inducements to prevent the plaintiff from filing suit and those acts actually caused the plaintiff to delay filing a timely lawsuit.  Here, the town did not take any such actions to prevent the Plaintiff from filing within the one-year period applicable to public entities.  The town’s request for a notice of claim was not an admission of liability or an agreement to negotiate a settlement amount.  Thus, the town’s suggestion that Plaintiff file a notice of claim did not affirmatively mislead Plaintiff to delay filing suit.  Moreover, when the town did not respond to the claim, Plaintiff should have known the claim was denied because Arizona law deems a claim as denied if a party receives no response within 60 days.  A.R.S. § 12-821.01(E).

The Court of Appeals also held that the one-year statute of limitations does not violate the Arizona Constitution.  The limitation period does not violate the anti-abrogation clause because it “merely regulates” but does not abrogate the cause of action.  Nor does it violate the equal protection clause (Ariz. Const. art. 2 § 13).  The Court held that protecting public entities from stale claims and allowing them to investigate claims and plan litigation budgets are rational bases for the statute. 

Judge Kessler delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge Jones and Judge Howe joined.