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McFadden v. Watson

Supreme Court of Arizona

January 10, 1938

J. R. McFADDEN, as Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Appellant,

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of the County of Maricopa. J. C. Niles, Judge. Judgment reversed.

Mr. John W. Corbin, Mr. Lin Orme, Jr., Mr. Henderson Stockton, Mr. Emmett R. Feighner and Mr. Eli Gorodezky, for Appellant.

Messrs. Kibbey, Bennett, Gust, Smith & Rosenfeld, for Appellees.


[51 Ariz. 111] LOCKWOOD, J.

This is an appeal from a judgment in favor of Vernor M. Watson and Gladys Watson, his wife, hereinafter called plaintiffs, against J. R. McFadden, as Sheriff of Maricopa County, hereinafter called defendant, for the possession of a certain automobile levied upon by defendant in his official capacity, under an execution.

In order that the issue before us may be properly understood, it is necessary that we review briefly the facts not only of the present but of another action. These facts are not in serious dispute, and may be stated in a narrative form as follows:

In August, 1934, one Ivan Wyatt was in the employ of the Phoenix Fuel Company, a copartnership composed of Vernor M. Watson and H. M. Watson. On August 27th of that year, while Wyatt was in charge of the storage plant of the company, he claimed that two persons unknown to him entered the office and robbed the cash register of $55; $40 being the property of the company, and the balance belonging to him. He reported the alleged hold-up to the officers, and then at the main office of the company, where he secured more change for the cash register, and returned to the storage plant. When he went back to the main office [51 Ariz. 112] at the close of the day's business, he was called into a conference by Vernor M. Watson, one of the partners in the company, and there they discussed the hold-up, and he was informed that his services were no longer required. The next morning Wyatt returned to the storage plant to get a desk and some chairs which belonged to him, but when he arrived a fellow employee presented him with a note signed by Vernor M. Watson, which refused to permit him to take his property and indicated that Watson believed the robbery was not genuine, but a fake. Watson made similar charges against Wyatt several other times, and finally the latter filed a suit against Watson in four separate causes of action, alleging malicious and wanton slander and libel, and asking for both punitive and actual damages. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Wyatt for $1,000 actual and $250 punitive damages on each cause of action, being a total judgment of $5,000. This judgment was never appealed from and became final. Thereafter, under an execution duly levied by virtue of such judgment, defendant seized

Page 1182

a certain automobile, whereupon the Watsons filed this suit in replevin to recover possession of the automobile. At the hearing before the court it was stipulated that the automobile was the community property of Vernor M. Watson and Gladys Watson, his wife. Plaintiffs then introduced the record in the libel and slander suit above referred to, and rested. Defendant then called Vernor M. Watson for cross-examination under the statute, and proved by him that he was, at the time of the alleged robbery above referred to and the doing of the various things on which the slander suit was based, a partner in the Phoenix Fuel Company, and the case was then submitted to the court. Judgment was rendered in favor of plaintiffs.

The real issue involved is whether or not when Vernor M. Watson did the various things on which the [51 Ariz. 113] action for libel and slander was based, he was acting as the agent of the community consisting of himself and Gladys Watson, or whether he was acting in his separate and independent capacity. We have held in the case of Cosper v. Valley Bank, 28 Ariz. 373, 237 P. 175, 41 A.L.R. 207, that community property is liable only for community debts, and not for the separate obligation of either of the spouses, but that any debt incurred during coverture is presumed to be a community debt, and it is upon those asserting the contrary to prove their contention. In that case we expressly disapproved of our previous holding in Villescas v. Arizona Copper Co., 20 Ariz. 268, 179 P. 963, to the effect that community property was liable for the acts of the husband in the commission of a crime not committed in the management of the community property. And we have since consistently upheld the rule that community property could not be seized by legal process to satisfy any obligation, contractual or otherwise, incurred by either spouse which did not arise out of some act on behalf of the community.

We have always held that our community property law was more like that of the state of Washington than of any of the other community states, and that decisions from that state were very persuasive. We think the rule governing the present situation is laid down most clearly and succinctly in the case of Floding v. Denholm, 40 Wash. 463, 82 P. 738, 739, in the following language:

"The rule now is that community property is liable for a debt created by the husband for the benefit of the community. But such property is not liable for a debt created by a tort of either spouse, or one which is not for the benefit of the community."

And this rule has been followed repeatedly in the state of Washington.

[51 Ariz. 114] It is not necessary, however, in order to bind the community, that the act which gives rise to the obligation, though tortious in its nature, shall actually benefit the community. It is sufficient that it was committed by the spouse with the bona fide intention of protecting the interest of the community, and it makes no difference that the act was a mistake in judgment -- a tort so far as it affected the rights of other people and ultimately detrimental to the interest of the community. In the case of Geissler v. Geissler,96 Wash. 150, 164 P. 746, 747, 166 P. 1119, the action was for personal injury resulting from ...

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