Acheson v. Shafter

Citation490 P.2d 832,107 Ariz. 576
Decision Date24 November 1971
Docket NumberNo. 10442,10442
PartiesRichard ACHESON, Appellant, v. Wayne D. SHAFTER, Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Arizona

Minne & Sorenson, and Cavness, DeRose & Senner by John W. Rood, Phoenix, for appellant.

Machmer & Schlosser, Ltd. by Gerald A. Machmer, Phoenix, for appellee.

UDALL, Justice.

Action for wilful and malicious conversion of a 1965 Porsche automobile. This cause was tried to a jury and verdict was returned in favor of Wayne Shafter, plaintiff below, awarding $3,888.00 actual damages and $15,000.00 exemplary damages.

The facts surrounding the conversion are as follows: In 1966, plaintiff, because of his pending divorce, was unable to secure a loan with which to purchase an automobile. He approached his close friend Richard Acheson, defendant below, and explained his situation. On August 16, 1967, Acheson secured a personal loan with the Arizona Bank and, in turn, loaned this money to Shafter, who then agreed to make all future payments thereon. Shafter used this money to purchase a 1965 Porsche, for which he paid $3,500.00. In compliance with his agreement with Acheson, he commenced to make the monthly payments on said loan.

Personal disagreements later arose between the parties. Acheson then hired a private investigator to take possession of the automobile and during the early morning hours of November 23, 1968, the automobile was driven from behind Shafter's apartment to Acheson's farm in Prescott. This was done without any prior warning and without the knowledge and consent of Shafter. The missing automobile was reported to the police and an investigation was conducted, whereupon it was learned that Acheson had the automobile in his possession.

Shafter made repeated demands for return of his automobile, but each time Acheson refused, claiming that Shafter still owed him money aside and different from the loan money. Shafter, nevertheless, continued to make the monthly payments to the bank and on June 19, 1969, made the final payment. Demand was again made upon Acheson and again he refused. In desperation, Shafter brought suit.

During trial, Acheson admitted converting the automobile in spite of the fact that he knew Shafter was faithfully continuing to make his payments and had, at no time, been in default thereon.

On appeal, the following questions have been presented for this Court's determination:

I. Was there insufficient proof in the record to support the award of compensatory damages?

Appellant's main contention is that plaintiff's testimony, to the effect that his 1965 Porsche was worth $3,600.00 at the time it was converted, was of no probative value and should have been stricken because plaintiff had 'no expertise' in appraising the value of used automobiles. With this contention we cannot agree. It is well-established that an owner may generally estimate the value of his real or personal property and this is true whether he qualifies as an expert or not. Board of Regents etc. v. Cannon, 86 Ariz. 176, 342 P.2d 207 (1959); Town & Country Chrysler Plymouth v. Porter, 11 Ariz.App. 369, 464 P.2d 815 (1970); III Wigmore, Evidence § 716 (3rd ed. 1940). Plaintiff's testimony was both relevant and competent, and was properly submitted to the jury.

II. Were the exemplary damages awarded by the trier of fact excessive, being the result of passion and prejudice?

In Arizona, exemplary or punitive damages may properly be assessed against a defendant in an action for conversion. Continental National Bank v. Evans, 107 Ariz. 378, 489 P.2d 15 (1971); Nielson v. Flashberg,101 Ariz. 335, 419 P.2d 514 (1966); Gila Water Company v. Gila Land & Cattle Company, 30 Ariz. 569, 249 P. 751 (1926). Punitive damages are allowed on grounds of public policy, Downs v. Sulpher Springs Valley Electrical Coop.,80 Ariz. 286, 297 P.2d 339 (1956), and are based on aggravated, wanton, reckless or maliciously intentional wrongdoing. Lutfy v. Roper, 57 Ariz. 495, 115 P.2d 161 (1941). Such damages are not to be awarded to compensate a plaintiff for the loss sustained, but, rather, are awarded for the avowed purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for his intentional misconduct and they also act as a deterrent to further wrongdoing. Nielson v. Flashberg, supra; Restatement of the Law, Torts, § 908 Comment a.

On appeal, Acheson argues that the $15,000.00 punitive damages awarded to the plaintiff are clearly excessive and a direct result of the passion and prejudice of the jury. He contends that the jury's passion and prejudice was inflamed by 'admission of evidence overemphasizing defendant's financial condition, his personal habits, and other irrelevant matters.'

Complaint is made of plaintiff's inquiry into defendant's financial status, showing him to be a man of great wealth. Exhibit 31 shows Acheson's net worth was in excess of $300,000.00 and disclosed the existence of two trusts with a total corpus of approximately $1,000,000.00, from which Acheson receives the income. The law is well-established that where punitive damages are properly in issue, inquiry may be made into a defendant's wealth. Since the very purpose of punitive damages is to punish a wrongdoer for his wrongdoing, the wealth or financial status of the wrongdoer is relevant and may be made known to the jury so that it may impose an appropriate 'punishment.' Nielson v. Flashberg, supra. The degree of punishment to be imposed should be 'to some extent in proportion to the means of the guilty person.' Restatement of the Law, Torts, § 908 Comment e Acheson also contends that the...

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