In Loredo v. Maricopa County[i] the Arizona Court of Appeals held that Maricopa County could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of a sheriff’s deputy because the County did not have control over the deputy’s actions.
In an action commenced against Maricopa County, the plaintiffs alleged negligence on the part of a deputy sheriff who ran a red light and struck their vehicle, causing injuries. The incident occurred while the sheriff’s deputy was transporting county jail inmates and driving a Sheriff’s Office vehicle. Despite this, the superior court granted Maricopa County’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the county could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of a Sheriff’s Office employee. The plaintiffs appealed.
In their appeal, the plaintiffs argued that personnel who work for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office should be considered employees of the County because, pursuant to Arizona Revised Statutes §§ 11-441 and 444(A), the sheriff is a “county officer” and the county “bears the cost(s) of the . . . sheriff’s conduct.” They also argued that under federal law, funding of a sheriff is strong evidence that the sheriff acts on behalf of the County.[ii]
The plaintiffs also argued that A.R.S. § 11-251(11), which grants the county board of supervisors the authority to “[s]upervise the official conduct of all county officers,” establishes a broad right of control.
In asserting error on the part of the superior court, the plaintiffs further contended that the deputy sheriff was a subagent of Maricopa County because the Sheriff is an agent of the County, and that they would be without a remedy if they could not sue the County since the Sheriff’s Office is a non-jural entity that cannot be sued.
In response, Maricopa County argued that the County could not be held vicariously liable because it lacks control over how the Sheriff’s Office conducts its official duties. Generally, counties are not vicariously liable for the acts of elected officials whose duties are imposed by either the Arizona constitution or Arizona statute.[iii] The County asserted that because the Maricopa County Sheriff is an elected official whose duties are established by the legislature, it could not be found liable for the acts of the deputy sheriff.
The Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to apply federal law, noting that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not impose vicarious liability on local governments for the acts of its employees. Instead, liability is imposed because the agent’s status cloaks him with the authority of the governmental body.[iv]
The Court of Appeals also rejected plaintiffs’ reliance on A.R.S. § 11-251(11), finding that the statute gives broad authority to the board of supervisors only over those who assess, collect, safekeep, manage, or disburse public funds, but does not confer plenary power to supervise county officers.
Maricopa County, the Court of Appeals held, is not vicariously liable for the actions of employees of the County Sheriff’s Department because it has no right to control the Sheriff or the Sheriff’s deputies in any sense sufficient to give rise to a principal-agent relationship between them.
As for the plaintiffs’ argument that the deputy sheriff is a subagent of the County, the Court found that the plaintiffs failed show any authority or evidence that the Sheriff agreed to be subject to control of the County while fulfilling his statutory duties.
Lastly, the Court found that the plaintiffs did have a remedy as they could sue the Sheriff, noting other similarly situated plaintiffs have done just that.
In Arizona, counties cannot be held vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of employees of county agencies where the county’s control is limited to fiscal supervision and oversight, as such a relationship does not rise to a principal-agent relationship. County defendants and their counsel should take this as a cue to pursue summary judgment in such a case; indeed, the Court has explicitly endorsed this as an appropriate tact when a plaintiff misapprehends the appropriate party to sue. Important to note also, is this ruling’s possible implications for who can be named as a nonparty at fault[v].
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[i] 1 CA-CV 22-0259 (2023)
[ii] 42 U.S.C. § 1983
[iii] Hernandez v. Maricopa Cnty., 138 Ariz. 143, 146 (App. 1983), quoting Fridena v. Maricopa Cnty., 18 Ariz. App. 527, 530-31(1972)
[iv] See Flanders v. Maricopa Cnty., 203 Ariz. 368, 378 (App. 2022)
[v] A.R.S. § 12-2506