Arizona Court Holds That Medical Expense Claims Belong to Child and Parents

The Arizona Supreme Court has reversed prior law and held  that a claim for medical expenses arising out of a personal injury to a child may be asserted by the child or the parents, but not both.

The case is Estate of Madison Alexis Desela v. Prescott Unified School District,  No. CV-10-0172-PR  (AZ  1/18/11).

Historically, Arizona law provided that the medical expense claim belonged to the injured child’s parents, who had the obligation to assert that claim within the statute of limitations applicable to adults.

The Court ruled that the "common law should adapt when circumstances make it no longer just or consistent with sound policy."   It went on to say that 

[t[he disadvantages of the  Pearson  rule outweigh the arguments for its retention.   Cf. Villareal, 160 Ariz. at 478-79, 774 P.2d at 217-18 (weighing arguments for and against recognizing child’s cause of action for loss of consortium).  The benefits that PUSD attributes to the  Pearson  rule are  tenuous.  Injured children are entitled, independent of any assignment from their parents, to recover various damages, such  as long-term disability, pain and suffering, and post-majority medical expenses.  Thus,  Pearson  does not generally afford  defendants certainty as to the amount of their liability or the timing of claims resulting from injuries to minors.


Although the  Pearson  rule may encourage the bringing of claims for medical expenses within the parents’ limitation period, it does so at the cost of promoting piecemeal litigation, at least in the absence of an effective assignment.  Cf. State ex rel. Packard v. Perry, 655 S.E.2d 548, 560 (W. Va. 2007) (“It is, frankly, absurd that two separate actions for a child’s medical expenses (pre-and post-majority) now arise from the same allegedly tortious conduct.”).  It also poses a potential trap for the unwary that can insulate defendants from liability for the child’s medical expenses for reasons unrelated  to the defendant’s fault.   Cf. Lopez v. Cole, 214 Ariz. 536, 539-40 ¶ 20, 155 P.3d 1060, 1063-64 (App. 2007) (barring minor’s recovery of medical expenses when parents had not consented to assignment).  And insofar as the  Pearson  rule prompts minors to file actions for other damages earlier and concurrently with a 10 parent’s claim for pre-majority medical expenses, this result is in tension with the legislative policy expressed in A.R.S. § 12-502 (generally providing that the limitations period for actions by minors does not begin to run until they turn eighteen), and A.R.S. § 12-821.01(D) (allowing minors to file notices of claims within 180 days after turning eighteen).
There continues to be a dispute in Tennessee about whether the medical expense claim belongs to the child, the parents or both.  I believe that Tennessee has adopted a rule similar to that of Arizona, and that either the child, or the parents, can assert the claim but that a double-recovery should not be permitted.  Palanki v. Vanderbilt University, 215 S.W.3d 380, 394 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006).  However, the Tennessee Supreme Court has not directly ruled on the issue, and this has caused some uncertainty in the Bar.  Hopefully, the issue will be presented to the Tennessee court in the near future and it will follow the lead of the Arizona court.