Arpaio v. Figueroa, 633 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 35 (App. Div. I, April 30, 2012) (J. Vasquez)
FINANCIAL WORTH EVIDENCE CANNOT BE COMPELLED FROM DEFENDANT UNTIL COURT DETERMINES A PRIMA FACIE CASE FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES EXISTS; TRIAL COURT SHOULD MAKE SUCH DETERMINATION AS “SOON AS IS REASONABLY POSSIBLE.”
Plaintiff brought a wrongful death action against the Maricopa County Sheriff alleging gross negligence and violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after her diabetic mother died at the Maricopa County Hospital following three days in county jail where she was denied insulin. On the eve of trial the trial court ordered, at plaintiffs' request, that defendant get together detailed personal financial information and provide it to his attorneys. The reasoning of the court was that it wanted to hear evidence at trial before deciding if plaintiff's punitive damage claim would go to the jury and in anticipation that the ruling might be favorable to the plaintiff, the court wanted to avoid a delay in the trial while defendant gathered this information. The defendant objected and brought this special action. The Arizona Court of Appeals overruled the trial court.
The court of appeals reasoned that in order to protect a party's privacy and to avoid harassment, delay and unnecessary expense, a party ought not to be compelled to produce financial worth information unless and until the plaintiff in fact makes out a prima facie case that punitive damages are warranted to the trial judge's satisfaction. In recognizing that here the court did not require production of the information to the plaintiff or to the court, but rather only to his attorney, the court of appeals found the harassment and burden on the defendant would be the same.
Importantly, the court of appeals further held that a trial court “should determine, as soon as is reasonably possible, whether at a discovery hearing or pretrial conference, if a party has made a prima facie showing in support of punitive damages, 'through discovery, by evidentiary means or through an offer of proof.'” Waiting to hear the evidence during the trial in order to make such a ruling is not the desired approach.