Helmreich, et al. v. AHC, et al., No. 1 CA-CV 19-0435 (April 21, 2020) – Memorandum
Recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled Arizona’s intoxication statute, A.R.S. §12-711, is not encompassed within the comparative fault jury instructions. A party is entitled to a jury instruction on any theory of the case if it is reasonably supported by the evidence.
A.R.S. §12-711 provides:
In any civil action, the finder of fact may find the defendant not liable if the defendant proves that the claimant or, if the claimant is an heir or the estate of a deceased person, the decedent was under the influence of an intoxicating liquor or a drug and as a result of that influence the claimant or decedent was at least fifty percent responsible for the accident or event that caused the claimant’s or decedent’s harm.
The Arizona Supreme Court interpreted the statute, holding the trier of fact may, but is not required to, find defendant is not liable if the plaintiff was under the influence of intoxicating liquor and as a result was at least 50 percent responsible for the accident.
In Helmreich, et al. v. AHC, et al., plaintiffs David and Mary Helmreich (“Helmreich”) sued Arizona’s Healing Center, LLC (“AHC”) and its agents after their son, Jay Helmreich, died from respiratory arrest. The respiratory arrest resulted from an acute heroin overdose. From April 2013 to July 2013, Jay Helmreich received treatment at AHC to address his substance abuse problem. After July 2013, Jay Helmreich intermittently attended outpatient therapy through AHC. By September 2013, Jay Helmreich started to relapse and unsuccessfully sought readmission. On December 15, 2013, Jay Helmreich died. Testing revealed cocaine in his blood and urine.
Helmreich alleged claims for medical negligence, wrongful death, fraud, and breach of contract against AHC. In 2018, the case went to trial on the claims of medical negligence, consumer fraud, and negligent hiring, training, or supervision. After the close of evidence, the court heard argument as to whether the A.R.S. §12-711 instruction should be given. The trial court expressed concern the statute, which “speaks to previous intoxication,” may not apply since Jay Helmreich’s death was essentially simultaneous with the heroin injection. AHC argued the plain language of the statute did not address the timing of drug use, and injection of the heroin alone formed a sufficient basis for the instruction. AHC also argued the evidence showing cocaine in Jay Helmreich’s system supported its theory that he was under the influence of a drug at the time of the event. Helmreich argued the statute was designed to apply only if a person’s conduct was affected by intoxication and there was a causal connection between the intoxication and event in question. The trial court ultimately declined to give the instruction, finding the intoxicating substance did not affect Jay Helmreich’s conduct where the injection of heroin was almost simultaneous with his death.
The jury awarded Helmreich $4 million. The jury apportioned 55 percent of fault to Jay Helmreich and the remainder to the named defendants. AHC filed a motion for new trial based on the trial court’s error in denying the proposed A.R.S. §12-711 jury instruction. AHC argued the instruction was required for several reasons, particularly because the evidence established the death occurred after prior heroin and cocaine use. The trial court granted the motion.
Helmreich appealed, arguing the trial court sufficiently instructed the jury because A.R.S. §12-711 does not alter the application of general principles of comparative fault. The Court of Appeals reviewed whether or not the order granting a new trial was legally incorrect and an abuse of discretion and found the affirmative defense under A.R.S. §12-711 is not encompassed within the comparative fault instructions.
Under Arizona’s comparative fault approach, damages are allocated proportionally, and plaintiffs can only recover damages to the extent they are not at fault. A.R.S. §12-2505. Here, the Court of Appeals held A.R.S. §12-711 alters the traditional comparative fault approach by allowing the fact finder to absolve the defendant of liability if the plaintiff or decedent was at least 50 percent responsible. This alteration is not encompassed within the traditional comparative fault principles.
The Court of Appeals also found AHC was entitled to the instruction because it was reasonably supported by evidence. This was partially due to Helmreich’s failure on appeal to include evidence supporting the argument that A.R.S. §12-711 is encompassed in the comparative fault jury instructions.
Arizona’s intoxication statute can be a valuable tool in arguing liability and disputing damages. It is important for defense counsel to build up the case to support this argument so the jury instruction is given at trial. Tyson & Mendes has experience successfully defending claims involving A.R.S. §12-711. Do not hesitate to contact us if you would like to discuss.