Arizona Supreme Court Brings Reason to Notice of Claim Requirements

Backus v State, __Az. Adv. Rep. __ No. Cv-08-0284-PR (March 19, 2009) (Chief Justice McGregor)


In these consolidated wrongful death cases the plaintiffs set forth a specific dollar amount it would settle the case identifying who the survivors were and in one case arguing the amount was supported by a claim for $21,500 per year for the life expectancy of the decedent. Both cases were dismissed by the trial court on the basis that factual basis supporting the amount of the demand in the notice of claim was inadequate.

The Supreme Court first identified the three elements that must be covered in a proper notice of claim: “(1) facts sufficient to permit the public entity to understand the basis upon which liability is claimed, (2) a specific amount for which the claim can be settled, and (3) the facts supporting the amount claimed.” ARS 12-821.01.A. Compliance allows the public entity the opportunity to investigate and assess liability, possibly settle the claim and otherwise budget its money.

In Deer Valley Unified Sch. Dist. No. 97 v. Houser, 214 Ariz. 293, 152 P.3d 490 (2007) the Supreme Court disallowed a notice of claim which set forth an amount but repeatedly used qualifying language making it “impossible to ascertain the precise amount” the case would settle for however the court did not reach the question of what “supporting facts” are necessary to support the amount.

Here the defense argues that the facts set forth in the notice when challenged should be “objectively” evaluated by the trial judge and if inadequate the notice declared inadequate and the suit dismissed even if as a consequence the case becomes time barred. The Supreme Court disagreed finding that to require such an analysis would create “satellite litigation” that will be potentially expensive, time consuming and create unnecessary barriers to claimant operating on a very short (180 days) timeline who cannot know what facts the public entity would want or find sufficient.

The court instead held “the statutory requirement that the claim include the facts supporting the amount claimed must refer to the view of the claimant, rather than to that of the public entity . . . a claimant complies . . . by providing the factual foundation that the claimant regards as adequate to permit the public entity to evaluate the specific amount claimed. This standard does not require a claimant to provide an exhaustive list of facts; as long as a claimant provides facts to support the amount claimed, he has complied with the supporting –facts requirement of the statute, and courts should not scrutinize the claimant's description of facts to determine the 'sufficiency' of the factual disclosure.”

Finally the court stated that the desire to get a case settled would work against any fear the plaintiff will intentionally hide or carelessly fail to reveal important facts supporting the damages and that the ethical and professional obligations of an attorney would inhibit attempts to mislead, hide or otherwise fail to adequately disclose facts supporting the damage claim.

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