The appeals court of Arizona reviewed a case named Ryan v. Napier, which was filed on August 23, 2018. The case involves plaintiff Susan E. Ryan as the administrator of the estate of Brian McDonald as well as Mark Napier, the Pima County Sheriff, and Joseph Klein as the defendants. The negligence claimant in this case recovered damages for dog bite injuries he had sustained when a police officer purposefully released a police canine against him. The appeals courts holds that the plaintiffs cannot assert a negligence claim based only on a law enforcement officer’s intentional use of physical action.
It was found that the correct Arizona law claim is actually for battery, and an officer that asserts the justification defense bears the burden of proof on that problem. The plaintiffs, however, are permitted to assert a negligence claim on conduct by the officer that is independent of the “intentional use of physical force.”
The appeals court also found that at trial on a battery claim, expert witnesses cannot imply to the jury that Graham v. Connor (which set forth certain factors important to excessive force cases) is the actual legal standard for deciding an application.
Brian McDonald was driving in Tucson late one night when he swerved into the lane next to him and nearly crashed into a police car driven by Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Dixon. Dixon pursued McDonald, but McDonald did not stop, which required Dixon to call for assistance. Traffic spikes were placed in McDonald’s path, but he pulled over before crashing into them. McDonald did not respond when asked to show his hands, in which more deputies responded.
Deputy Joseph Klein and his police dog, Barry, arrived at the scene. Barry was trained to “bite and hold” on command to help law enforcement catch suspects. Klein asserted command and warned McDonald he would “send his dog” unless McDonald responded. After another chase, Klein approached McDonald with Barry and warned him. Allegedly, Klein intentionally released Barry once McDonald put his hands on the roof of his car. McDonald sustained several serious injuries after Barry bit his leg for 25 to 38 seconds.
Law enforcement later learned that McDonald had type 1 diabetes, and at time of this incident, he was experiencing “a severe hypoglycemic event.” This would have explained his lack of cognitive function to understand what was occurring and his inability to respond to police commands. There were no criminal charges placed against McDonald.
McDonald decided to sue Klein and the other Pima County Sheriffs. He disputed that Klein “negligently released” Barry and that using the police dog “constituted a negligent, unjustified, and excessive use of force.” This claim was based on vicarious liability. McDonald did not make any claims for battery or for deprivation of rights. Instead, he purposely decided to assert a negligence claim only.
The defendants moved to summary judgment, disputing that Klein’s intentional use of force could not completely constitute negligence. The trial court denied this motion before trial and ruled that McDonald could pursue this claim despite Klein’s intentional decision to release the dog.
The main issues during trial involved whether Klein acted negligently in releasing Barry against McDonald, and if he did, whether he was legally justified in doing so, which would relieve defendants of liability. The reasonableness of police force was assessed during trial, and the jury found that McDonald deserved an award for $617,500 in damages, in which he was five percent at fault.
The court of appeals affirmed their decision in a split affirmation. The court concluded that McDonald could actually recover damages under a negligence claim for “Klein’s evaluation of whether to intentionally release Barry,” which the court had found different from a battery claim based on Klein’s “intentional release” of the dog.
The court also found that the justification defense did not apply to negligence claims, which meant that if Klein negligently released Barry, he was not “privileged to do so.” The court also rejected the defendant’s disputes that evidence of the Graham factors was inadmissible.
During discussion, it was found that the defendants argued that the trial court was wrong in denying their motion for summary judgment, because an intentional use of excessive force is an intentional tort and cannot also be constituted negligence. McDonald does not contest with the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, and we review it de novo.
The court also needed to discuss the differences between negligence and intentional torts. To recover on a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove a duty requiring the defendant to conform “to a standard of care, breach of duty, and resulting damages.” Intentional torts, however, do not require a proof of duty, breach, or a connection between the breach and the injury. In conclusion, the trial court and court of appeals were wrong in deciding that the defendants could be liable for negligence for Klein’s intentional release of Barry. We reverse the trial court’s judgment and remand for entry of judgment in favor of the defendants on the negligence claim.
A trial court should not instruct a jury on the justification defense if the only claim against the police officer is negligence. If a claim is also made for battery, the court should instruct on the justification defense, but explain that the defense applies only to the battery claim.
In conclusion, we vacate the court of appeals’ opinion. We reverse the trial court’s original judgment and remand to that court for entry of judgment in favor of the defendants on the claim of negligence.
Nationally recognized litigation attorney Thomas Metier practice areas include traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, trucking accidents and motor vehicle accidents. He is licensed to practice in Colorado, Wyoming, the U.S. District Court–District of Colorado, and the U.S. District Court–District of Wyoming, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.