How often have we seen this tragic plot unfold?
Two motorists, for whatever dumb reason, are drag racing each other on a public road. One of the cars strikes another innocent motorist or pedestrian, who suffers catastrophic injury. Should both drag racers be responsible for all damages that the injured victim receives? Or should the “contact” vehicle be completely responsible? Or should the contact vehicle be mostly resonsible, and the “non-contact” vehicle be responsible only to a lesser extent?
A recent “accident”, for lack of a better term, illustrates this scenario in very grave terms. In January of this year, two young Tucson women, Claudia Martinez and Ana Lucia Caballero, both students at Pima Community College, were killed when their car was struck by a car driven by Jessica Marie Vass, who was drag racing with another motorist, Maribel Lopez Puentes. Ms. Vass was traveling at 103 miles per hour, racing Ms. Puentes, when she rear-ended the victims’ vehicle, whose car burst into flames. Lawyers for the families of both victims recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both motorists for their roles in causing the women’s deaths.
Under Arizona’s comparative fault laws, a jury could conceiviably find both drag racers responsible for the deaths of the victims. Since Ms. Vass was the drag racer who actually struck the victims’ car, should she bear most of the fault for the damages suffered by the surviving family members? Or should both drag racers be jointly responsible for the full amount of the damages?
In Arizona, several liability is the rule, and joint liability the exception. If two or more persons are a cause of someone’s injuries, each is responsible only for their percentage of fault in causing the injuries. So if Driver A falls asleep at the wheel, goes over the centerline, and collides head-on with Driver B, who incidentally was intoxicated at the time, and Driver B spins and collides with and injures Driver C, Driver C has claims against both Driver A and B. If a jury holds Driver A 70 percent at fault and Driver B 30 percent at fault, Driver C can collect his or her damages multiplied by these percentages from each driver, or from each driver’s insurance company.
The exception is joint liability. The only exceptions under Arizona law are master/servant (or employer/employee or principal/agent) and acting in concert. Tony drives a truck for ACME trucking company. He falls asleep at the wheel, crosses the centerline, and severely injures Sarah, an oncoming motorist. Assuming nobody else did anything to cause Sara’s injuries, Tony is at fault for all of Sara’s damages, as is ACME Trucking Company.
How about two or more people acting in concert to cause an injury? Little Bobby is assaulted by a gang of five thugs on his walk home from grade school, each who take turns punching and kicking Bobby. Under the acting in concert statute, each gang member is at fault for all of Bobby’s damages, as each acted in accordance with a common plan to cause Bobby to sustain injuries.
This brings us back to our drag racing example. The two drag racers who killed the victims in the Tucson crash likely did not intend to harm anyone. A jury would likely find that each was grossly reckless in their operation of their vehicles. Drag racing, especially at such high speeds, is ineveitably going to cause damage to property or injury to other motorists. Shouldn’t both drag racers bear joint resonsibility for the injuries sustained by others as a result of their “plan” to engage in such grossly reckless and dangerous behavior?