Ahmad v. State of Arizona, 743 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 8 (App. Div. I, July 12, 2016) (J. Swann)
GREAT DEFERENCE TO JURY ASSESSMENT OF DAMAGES/REMITTITUR ONLY APPROPRIATE WHERE TRIAL COURT MAKES SPECIFIC FINDINGS DEMONSTRATING NO REASONABLE JURY COULD HAVE REACHED THIS VERDICT BASED UPON THE EVIDENCE PRESENTED
Plaintiffs brought a wrongful death action alleging negligence by the State of Arizona when a fleeing bank robbery suspect being chased by Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Department of Public Safety police officers, crossed the center line at high speed and crashed into plaintiffs' son's car killing him. Plaintiffs' counsel argued in opening statement and closing argument that the jury should “send a message” to the state with their verdict. The jury returned a verdict of $30 million and apportioned 5% fault against the State of Arizona. Defendant moved for a new trial and remittitur arguing plaintiffs' counsel's argument improperly led jury to award impermissible punitive damages, that the jury awarded damages based upon the value of the decedent's life and not the harm caused his parents and that in fact the evidence established “strength and resilience” by the plaintiffs in the face of their son's death and therefore the damages were excessive. The trial court remitted the damages to $10 million, reducing the state's obligation from $1.5 million to $500,000 or in the alternative offered the plaintiffs a new trial on damages only. The plaintiffs appealed and the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.
The court of appeals found that a jury verdict on damages must be given great deference and can only be overturned if it was the result of “passion and prejudice.” Passion and prejudice are not established by the size of the verdict alone. Based upon a review of the evidence to support the verdict the court must conclude the amount is so “unreasonable and outrageous as to shock the conscience.”
The court rejected the argument that the failure to prove economic loss to support the verdict was necessary. Arizona's Wrongful Death Statute A.R.S. §12-613, requires the jury award damages that it deems “fair and just” including damages for “loss of love, affection, companionship, consortium, personal anguish and suffering.” There is no requirement of economic loss to support a damage award or its amount.
The court also found the State's argument that the verdict must bear some reasonable relationship to other verdicts in other “similar cases” misguided.
Making references to verdicts in other cases, from
our own jurisdiction or others is a dangerous game,
to say the least. No two persons are alike. No two
injuries are alike. No two juries are alike. We hope
the day will never come when awards for pain and
suffering in personal injury suits are based upon
pre-determined schedules. The worth and dignity
of the individual is a touchstone of our society.
Here the trial court engaged in no analysis of the evidence and pointed to no deficiencies in the evidence to support its decision to remit the verdict. Absent such an analysis and rationale remittitur in inappropriate.
Editor's Note: Compare this case with Soto v. Saco (see attached), also a Division I case where remittitur was affirmed based upon a review of jury verdict research. Hopefully the Supreme Court will clarify this conflict among departments of division one.