Collateral Attack of a Probate Court Action in a Civil Lawsuit
Under Arizona law, a party cannot attack a ruling made in one case by motion in a different forum. For example, a party cannot attack in a separate personal injury case a probate registrar’s appointment of a special administrator. In the case of Duncan v. Progressive Preferred Ins. Co., 261 P.3d 778 (2011), the Court of Appeals considered the impact of a collateral attack.
Facts of the Case
Mrs. Duncan had an automobile accident in 2007. She claimed that it was caused by Mr. Pop. Mr. Pop had insurance issued by Progressive Preferred Insurance Company with liability coverage of $15,000 per person.
Mrs. Duncan claimed $6,000 in medical expenses plus personal injuries. Her attorney sent a demand letter to Progressive seeking $20,000 as compensation for the injuries and medical expenses. Progressive refused this demand. Mrs. Duncan filed this action in superior court against Mr. Pop. He died before he was served with the complaint.
Mrs. Duncan initiated a probate proceeding, requesting the appointment of a special administrator for Mr. Pop’s estate. The administrator was to accept service of process of her complaint and to tender the defense to the insurance company.
A probate registrar granted the application and named attorney Craigg Voightmann as Special Administrator. Voightmann accepted service of process on behalf of Mr. Pop’s estate and tendered the defense to Progressive. Voightmann’s appointment as special administrator then terminated.
Mr. Pop’s estate did not answer the complaint and Mrs. Duncan filed for default. Progressive then filed a motion to dismiss based on insufficient service of process. It argued that the complaint should be dismissed with prejudice because the procedure used to serve the complaint upon the estate of Mr. Pop was incorrect. The court granted Progressive’s motions. Mrs. Duncan appealed.
Collateral Attack on the Probate Registrar’s Appointment
Mrs. Duncan claims that the probate registrar had authority to appoint a special administrator. She argues that the administrator could be appointed for the limited purpose of accepting service of process for an estate. Progressive claims that the informal appointment was improper. It claims it was not “necessary to protect the estate” as required by law. It also claims that Mrs. Duncan should have arranged for the appointment of a general personal representative. Progressive also argues that the special administrator was given powers “beyond those permitted by statute”.
The Court of Appeals did not address these issues. Instead, it found that the motion to dismiss was improper. It ruled that the motion was an impermissible collateral attack on the probate registrar’s appointment of the special administrator. A probate registrar has authority to name a special administrator “when necessary to protect the estate of a decedent”.
The probate registrar, in this case, appointed Voightmann as the estate’s special administrator. It authorized him to accept service for the estate and forward the summons and complaint to Progressive. Even if the registrar erred in making the appointment, that cannot serve for a collateral attack in a separate action.
The registrar, acting in a separate probate proceeding, had authority to appoint the special administrator. The special administrator had powers similar to a personal representative. The special administrator here had the authority to accept service of process on behalf of Mr. Pop’s estate. The registrar’s order of appointment was not vacated or otherwise set aside in the probate proceeding.
Progressive’s motion to dismiss was intended to obtain another judgment to destroy the effect of the registrar’s appointment. Progressive could have directly challenged the appointment in the probate proceeding. But it didn’t.
Because Progressive never challenged the appointment in probate court, the appointment was not vacated. As a result, the special administrator had authority to accept service of process and forward the suit papers to Progressive. Progressive’s motion to dismiss in this tort action was an impermissible collateral attack on the actions of the registrar in the probate proceeding. Therefore, the superior court erred in granting Progressive’s motion to dismiss.
The Court of Appeals reverses the ruling of the superior court dismissing Melissa’s complaint.