Jerome Walsh’s wife and four adult children filed a wrongful death action against Advanced Cardiac Specialists Chartered (ACS) after his death. At trial, Jerome’s wife and children testified extensively about their relationship with him, and the loss they experienced from his death. The children were not cross-examined on the issue, and no contradictory evidence was presented. The jury awarded the wife $1 million, but awarded zero to each child. The children moved for a new trial under Ariz. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(5) (insufficient damages) and 59(a)(8) (verdict not justified by evidence), but the trial court denied that motion, finding that they had waived the issue. The children appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed on different grounds.
In a unanimous decision, the Arizona Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ opinion and reversed and remanded the trial court’s ruling. The Court first explained that damages are not an essential element in a wrongful death action and are not statutorily required under A.R.S. § 12-613, which states that a jury must “give such damages as it deems fair and just.” See Quinonez ex re. Quinonez v. Andersen, 144 Ariz. 193, 198, 696 P.2d 1342, 1347 (App. 1984). Furthermore, although a jury may not arbitrarily reject uncontested evidence, a jury may appropriately discredit a witness’s uncontradicted testimony for various reasons, including the witness’s personal interest. Estate of Reinen v. N. Ariz. Orthopedics, Ltd., 198 Ariz. 283, 287 ¶ 12, 9 P.3d 314, 318 (2000). Because the jury in this case could have believed the children’s testimony but still determined that awarding no damages was “fair and just,” or could have discounted their testimony as interested witnesses, the zero-damages award was not impermissible as a matter of law.
The Court rejected the children’s argument that White v. Greater Arizona Bicycling Ass’n, 216 Ariz. 133, 163 P.3d 1083 (App. 2007) and Sedillo v. City of Flagstaff, 153 ARiz. 478, 737 P.2d 1377 (App. 1987) compel a different result. The Court overruled those decisions insofar as they held as a matter of law that a jury in a wrongful death case may not disregard an interested witness’s testimony without some reason apparent from the record.
The Court nonetheless remanded to the trial court because even if a verdict is not defective on its face, a trial court may, in its discretion, grant a new trial if upon its review of the evidence “substantial justice has not been done between the parties.” Smith v. Moroney, 79 Ariz. 35, 38, 282 P.2d 470, 472 (1955). Because the trial court did not address the merits of the children’s motion for new trial (and instead found a waiver), the Court remanded to the trial court to consider, in the first instance, whether the award of zero damages was insufficient or not justified by the evidence.
Justice Pelander authored the unanimous opinion.
Posted by: Sharad H. Desai.