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Arizona Law: Courts Rule on Medical Marijuana, Improper Jury Instructions, Insurance Law and Public Records Requests

Posted by Matt Schmidt | Dec 29, 2014 | 0 Comments

Since my last blog on Arizona law, there have been four new decisions from the Arizona Appellate Courts that have an impact on our personal injury law practice. Here is a quick summary of what you need to know:

1. Arizona law makes it a crime to have a prohibited drug in your system while driving, regardless of impairment. The only exception is if the drug was prescribed by a doctor.

In this case, two people were charged with breaking this law for having marijuana in their system while driving, despite the fact they had medical marijuana cards issued to them by doctors. The Arizona Court of Appeals held the charges were valid because federal law prohibits the prescription or use of marijuana. Further, the exception to the Arizona law (if the drug was prescribed by a doctor) does not apply here because Arizona Medical Marijuana Act does not technically allow doctors to "prescribe" marijuana, but only allows them to issue a "written certification" that a patient is entitled to a medical marijuana card.

What this means: If someone is charged with having marijuana in their system while driving, his or her marijuana card won't help them. The court could have probably gone either way on this decision, but chose to narrowly interpret the language of the law (i.e. "prescribe" vs. "issue a written certification") in order to keep the use of marijuana while driving a crime. As the use of marijuana continues to be a national controversy--as federal law prohibiting its use continues to clash with some states' laws allowing it--it will not be surprising to see courts struggle in making sense of these conflicting views and vary widely and inconsistently with its decisions on the topic.

2. In a dispute involving a breach of contract, the trial court improperly instructed the jury to consider the defendant's equitable defenses (it is the court's responsibility to determine whether these defenses apply, not the jury), though no one objected to the jury instruction at the time. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of the defendant without specifying why. The trial granted the Plaintiff's motion for a new trial based on this mistake, but the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled a new trial could not be granted because 1) the improper jury instruction had not been objected to and 2) since the jury did not specify how it reached its verdict, the plaintiff could not prove that the jury was prejudiced by the improper instruction.

What this means: Failing to object to a critical error made by the court could cost you the entire case.

3. In a  complicated case involving a contract,  general contractor, subcontractor, insurance company and insurance agent, the Arizona Court of Appeals found there was a valid question of fact (an issue for the jury to decide) regarding whether a general contractor was insured under the subcontractor's insurance policy based on language in the insurance policy and contract, as well as actions and communications between the general contractor and subcontractor.

What this means: Because the courts rely heavily on the very specific facts in these kinds of cases, there is no catchall lesson to learn from this particular case--the outcome of each  case can vary substantially depending on its individual circumstances..  As has been the case for a while, insurance and contract law have everything to do with what the insurance policy/contract language is, what the parties agree to, what they reasonably expect, how the parties act and whether those actions create reliance on one party from another. This case is no different, the court looking at its very specific facts and applying them to the factors mentioned above.

4. Arizona law requires a custodian to "promptly" respond to a request for a production of a public record, but does not define what "promptly" means. The Arizona Court of Appeals defined it as the reasonable time it would take to gather all the information for all the requests. In other words, a public entity does not have to produce easily obtainable items sooner than other items, but only needs to produce all the items in the reasonable amount of time it would take to assemble, review and redact everything requested.

In this particular case, plaintiff was fired by his school district and requested several public records to fight his termination. It required several requests and took 24 days to get a school district to produce everything plaintiff requested. The final production came a day before the plaintiff's termination hearing. The trial court found the production was not "prompt," but the Arizona Court of Appeals did.

What this means: Like the previous case described involving insurance and contract law, the determination of what a "reasonable amount of time" is and the outcome of each case is going to heavily depend on its individual facts, starting with what was requested and how long it took to produce all of it. In this case, the court found 24 days reasonable. It is interesting to note, however, that the court only seemed to consider what was requested and how long it took, as opposed to other  important factors potentially necessary to determine what is "reasonable." For example, the amount of  times it took the plaintiff to request certain items before getting them and not getting everything until the day before his termination hearing--the whole reason he needed the information to begin with--would have been fair factors to consider in the analysis, but seemed to have been left out by the court.

Want to read more about the details of these decisions and others? Check out our Law Updates.

About the Author

Matt Schmidt

Matt graduated from the James E Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in passing the Arizona bar exam in 2010. Matt's primary interest in law focuses on general personal injury and insurance bad faith.

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