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Delci v. Gutierrez Trucking Company - 4/19/2012

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds that a Vehicle Owner Generally Owes No Duty to Protect Third Parties From the Risk of Harm Caused by an Unrelated Third Party Who Takes and Drives the Vehicle Without Permission.

The driver of a tractor-trailer left it parked in an unguarded, unfenced field with the keys under a floor mat in the unlocked cab.  An unknown individual took the vehicle, became involved in a fatal collision with a father and son, and fled the scene.   

Plaintiffs filed a complaint for the death and injuries caused by the collision.  They named as Defendants the trucking company that owned the semi-trailer and the regular driver of the vehicle.  The complaint alleged negligent failure to secure the vehicle. 

Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that as a matter of law they owed no duty of care to Plaintiffs.  The superior court granted Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings.  Plaintiffs appealed.  The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.

A claim of negligence requires proof of a duty, breach of the duty, causation and actual damages.  A duty is an obligation recognized by law that requires the defendant to conform to a particular standard of conduct to protect others against unreasonable risks of harm. 

To determine whether a defendant owed a duty of care, Arizona courts consider (1) the relationship between the parties and (2) public policy.  A duty may arise from a special relationship based on contract, family relations, or conduct undertaken by the defendant, or based on categorical relationships recognized by the common law, such as a landowner-invitee relationship.  A duty also may arise based on considerations of public policy found in state statutory laws and common law.

Here, there was no special or categorical relationship between the parties that would give rise to a duty of care.  The superior court therefore correctly granted judgment on the pleadings for the defendants.

The appellate court declined to adopt the Restatement (Third) of Torts (2010) §7, which establishes a presumption of a duty of care by all persons to all others to avoid risks of physical harm.  Arizona courts, instead, follow the approach of the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965) § 315.  Under that approach, a party has no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent him from causing physical harm to another unless (a) a special relation exists with the third person that imposes a duty to control the third person’s conduct, or (b) a special relation exists with the other that gives the other a right of protection.

Presiding Judge Hall authored the opinion; Judges Weisberg and Timmer concurred.

Posted by: Mark Hummels

Posted On: 4/23/2012