A drunk motorist sped off of a Gilbert road and crashed in a canal. One of the passengers sued the Town of Gilbert for negligence. The passenger’s theory, as set forth in his complaint and disclosure statements, was that the Town failed to provide adequate lighting and warning signs near the canal. At trial, the passenger’s expert testified that the Town should have provided more warning signs on the road at the time of the crash. The Town’s expert, relying on a traffic survey conducted on site in 2015, testified that the existing warning signs were sufficient given the volume of traffic in the area at the time. The jury returned a verdict for the Town.
The passenger moved for a new trial because, it turns out, the Town never disclosed a Traffic Impact Study that had been conducted in 2003 as part of a plan for residential development in the area. Before trial, the passenger had sent a public records request to the Town asking for all relevant “traffic studies,” but the Town did not include this Traffic Impact Study in its response.
The superior court ordered a new trial, reasoning that the Town violated its disclosure obligations under Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 26.1. The court declined to “parse through the significance of the traffic numbers” in the Traffic Impact Study, but agreed with the passenger that the Traffic Impact Study “will likely open the door to a new liability theory – negligent design of the roadway.”
The Court of Appeals reversed the order for a new trial, holding that Rule 26.1 did not require disclosure of the Traffic Impact Study. Although Rule 26.1 requires parties to disclose documents that “may be relevant to the subject matter of the action,” it does not require parties to anticipate undisclosed theories of liability or defenses. Here, the passenger’s theory of liability was that the Town failed to provide adequate lighting and warning signs at the time of the crash; the Town’s defense was that the existing warning signs were sufficient given the volume of traffic at the time. The Traffic Impact Study—which was conducted more than a decade before the crash, as part of a plan for residential development, and which contained no meaningful analysis of the specific portion of road at issue—was not relevant to the parties’ theories or defenses.
In addition, the Court of Appeals clarified that a public entity’s obligation to respond to public records requests under state law is distinct from its disclosure obligations under Rule 26.1. Although the Town “may have” violated its obligation to respond to public records requests by failing to produce the Traffic Impact Study, the remedy for any such violation would be a separate proceeding, not a new trial in the underlying litigation.
Presiding Judge Winthrop delivered the opinion. Judge Cattani and Judge Johnsen joined.
Posted by: Josh Whitaker