PHOENIX (Legal Newsline) – The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that the constitutional right of jurors to determine a monetary award doesn’t preclude a judge from ruling their decisions as excessive.
The court issued its decision July 13 in a lawsuit stemming from a motor vehicle accident in which Michael Soto and his wife, Julie, were passengers in a taxi cab driven by Anthony Sacco when it collided with another vehicle.
The Sotos sued Sacco, Discount Enterprises Inc. and Total Transit Inc., doing business as Discount Cab.
In the accident, Michael Soto sustained multiple injuries to his dominant arm and underwent surgery to permanently implant a plate and screws to stabilize it.
During the trial, the Sotos testified that Michael Soto experienced significant pain and emotional distress since the accident, preventing him from participating in physical activities he previously enjoyed.
Michael Soto’s treating physician, however, placed no limitations on his activities and told him to use his arm normally, using pain as a guide.
At trial, the Sotos asked the jury to award Michael Soto $725,000 in damages. However, the defendants suggested an award between $90,000 and $120,000.
After deliberating, the jury awarded $700,000 to Michael Soto and $40,000 to Julie Soto.
The defendants then moved for a new trial, or to alter or amend the judgment, and for remittitur under Arizona law, requesting that Michael Soto’s award be reduced to not more than $350,000.
The trial court found that the jury verdict in favor of Michael Soto “was excessive and not supported by the evidence,” the court's opinion states, and granted a remittitur, reducing Michael Soto’s award to $250,000.
The Sotos rejected the court’s remittitur and appealed from the new trial order that became effective after they declined the remittitur.
Justice John Lopez, writing the unanimous opinion for the court, stated that trial judges have some leeway, but “should be circumspect’’ when they overturn a jury’s award. He noted that the judicial power is limited, noting that a jury’s role cannot be downplayed and a trial court just can’t replace a jury’s judgment with its own.
However, Lopez said judges are in a position to guard against what he termed “unjust verdicts.’’ As a result, he wrote in the opinion that position bestows upon them the right to conclude that an award is not back up by the evidence.
As a safeguard, it is the victim’s right to seek a new trial rather than accept a reduced verdict and that is what the Sotos elected to do.
“We vacate the court of appeals’ opinion, affirm the trial court’s order conditionally granting a new trial, and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Lopez concluded in the unanimous opinion.