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Acri v. State

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

March 30, 2017

GORDON ACRI, et al., Plaintiffs/Appellants,
v.
STATE OF ARIZONA, et al., Defendants/Appellees. CHUCK OVERMYER and NINA BILL OVERMYER, both as individuals and as representatives of a class consisting of all of the residents of Yarnell, Glen Ilah, Peeples Valley, and the surrounding geographical area who suffered damages as a result of the Yarnell Hill Fire, Plaintiffs/Appellants,
v.
STATE OF ARIZONA, a public entity; and the ARIZONA STATE FORESTRY DIVISION, a public entity, Defendants/Appellees.

         Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County Nos. CV2014-007698, CV2014-009071 CONSOLIDATED The Honorable J. Richard Gama, Judge Retired

          Knapp & Roberts, PC, Scottsdale By Craig A. Knapp, Dana R. Roberts, David L. Abney Counsel for Plaintiffs/Appellants

          Arizona Attorney General's Office, Phoenix By Brock J. Heathcotte, Daniel P. Schaack Stinson Leonard Street, LLP, Phoenix By Michael L. Parrish, Brandon R. Nagy Co-Counsel for Defendants/Appellees

          Presiding Judge Kent E. Cattani delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Judge Lawrence F. Winthrop and Judge Peter B. Swann joined.

          OPINION

          CATTANI, Judge

         ¶1 Residents of Yarnell and surrounding areas (the "Residents") appeal from the superior court's ruling dismissing their negligence claims against the State of Arizona and the Arizona State Forestry Division (collectively, "State") arising from damage caused by the Yarnell Hill Fire. Because the superior court correctly concluded that the State did not owe a duty to protect the Residents' property against naturally caused wildfires, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 On the afternoon of June 30, 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire burned out of control, killing 19 local firefighters and destroying structures and property throughout Yarnell. Lightning had sparked the wildfire two days earlier in mountainous wildlands near Yarnell, and the State, acting through the Forestry Division, was in charge of the firefighting efforts for the first three days, including when it hit Yarnell. This case arises only from the property damage caused by the fire; the tragic loss of life is not at issue here.

         ¶3 The Residents asserted civil claims against the State, alleging that the State had negligently managed the firefighting efforts, negligently failed to protect Yarnell from the fire, and negligently failed to provide a timely evacuation notice, all leading to the destruction of their property.[1] On the State's motion, the superior court dismissed the complaints on the basis that the State did not owe the Residents a duty as required to state a cause of action for negligence. The Residents appealed, and we now affirm.[2]

         ¶4 We hold that the State did not owe the Residents a legal duty in connection with its efforts to combat a wildland fire resulting from a natural occurrence on public land in natural condition. To hold otherwise would effectively require the State to act as an insurer against naturally-occurring calamities affecting private property throughout the state. And imposing such a duty (with its corresponding potential for liability) based on the State's undertaking to coordinate wildland firefighting would create a self-defeating incentive not to engage in such important efforts. Thus, the Residents' claims fail as a matter of law.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶5 Dismissal under Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim is proper "only if 'as a matter of law [ ] plaintiffs would not be entitled to relief under any interpretation of the facts susceptible of proof.'" Coleman v. City of Mesa, 230 Ariz. 352, 356, ¶ 8 (2012) (citation omitted and alteration in original). We consider only the pleading itself, and we "assume the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations and indulge all reasonable inferences from those facts, but mere conclusory statements are insufficient." Id. at ¶ 9. We review de novo the superior court's dismissal for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Id. at 355, ¶ 7.

         ¶6 A negligence claim requires proof of four elements: "(1) a duty requiring the defendant to conform to a certain standard of care, " (2) breach of that standard of care, (3) causation, and (4) actual damages. Gipson v. Kasey, 214 Ariz. 141, 143, ¶ 9 (2007). The existence of a duty is a threshold question; "absent some duty, an action for negligence cannot be maintained." Id. at ¶ 11. This threshold question of whether a duty exists is a question of law for the court, which we consider de novo. Guerra v. State, 237 Ariz. 183, 185, ¶ 7 (2015).

         ¶7 A duty is an "obligation, recognized by law, which requires the defendant to conform to a particular standard of conduct in order to protect others against unreasonable risks of harm." Markowitz v. Arizona Parks Bd., 146 Ariz. 352, 354 (1985). A duty may arise from a variety of sources, including a special relationship between the parties - whether contractual, familial, or based on "conduct undertaken by the ...


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