Soto v. Sacco (Arizona Supreme Court Case No. CV-16-0136-PR, filed July 13, 2017)

This case involves the intersection between a jury’s province in a civil case to determine the amount of damages (if any) to award a plaintiff and the trial judge’s authority under Arizona Rule of Civil Procedure 59 to reduce or increase the jury’s damage award under certain circumstances. The Arizona Supreme Court cautioned trial judges to be “circumspect when modifying a jury award,” but confirmed a trial judge may modify the jury’s award of damages so long as the judge identifies the ground or grounds specified in Rule 59 that justify the modification and explains his or her ruling “with sufficient particularity to avoid speculation as to its basis.”

Attempting to strike the proper balance between the respective roles of judge and jury in civil cases, the supreme court instructed “a trial court should not disturb a jury’s damage award unless the judge is firmly convinced it is inadequate or excessive and is contrary to the weight of the evidence.” In cases where the trial judge finds the jury’s damage award is tainted by passion or prejudice, or is shockingly or flagrantly outrageous, the court should order a new trial. When the verdict is neither the result of passion or prejudice nor shockingly outrageous, but instead reflects an excessive or insufficient measure of damages that is not supported by the evidence, the trial judge may exercise his or her discretion and order a reduction (remittitur) or increase (additur) in the amount of damages. The process for ordering a remittitur or additur under Rule 59 is through a conditional grant of new trial. After being presented with the trial court’s remittitur or additur, the party against whom the remittitur or additur is ordered can either accept the reduction or increase in the damage award or reject it. If the party refuses to accept the reduction or increase in the damage award, a new trial is granted without further order.

In this case, the jury awarded one of two plaintiffs in a motor vehicle accident $700,000 in damages. The defendants moved for a new trial or for a downward modification of the damage award to no more than $350,000. The trial judge found the jury verdict was excessive and not supported by the evidence, and granted a remitter under Rule 59, reducing the plaintiff’s damage award to $250,000. The plaintiff rejected the trial court’s remittitur and appealed from the new trial order that became effective after he declined the remittitur.

The court of appeals affirmed the new trial order. In so doing, the court of appeals ruled that when a trial judge conditionally grants a new trial under what is now Rule 59(f), the judge is not required to comply with what is now Rule 59(i), which states an order granting a new trial must specify with particularity the ground or grounds for the court’s order. Although the supreme court likewise affirmed the new trial order, it disagreed with and overruled the court of appeals’ holding (which was based on prior case law the supreme court also overruled) that a trial court is not required to specify with particularity the grounds for a conditional new trial order when the trial judge finds the damages awarded by the jury are either excessive or insufficient.

Turning to the issue of what standard applies for deciding whether a conditional new trial order states sufficient facts and conclusions to satisfy Rule 59(i)’s particularity requirement, the supreme court reiterated its prior construction of that requirement as necessitating more than a mere recitation of the applicable Rule 59(a) ground or grounds relied on by the trial court to justify reducing or increasing the damage award. Instead, out of respect for the jury’s decision and to allow for meaningful appellate review, the trial judge must describe why the jury award is too high or too low. This description must “furnish sufficient factual detail to apprise the parties and the appellate courts of the specific basis for the court’s ruling so that they may avoid speculation.”

The supreme court explained that a trial court’s degree of specificity in explaining its ruling determines the degree of deference afforded to its judgment on appellate review:

  • If the trial court provides fact-specific reasons, sufficient to avoid speculation, to support its order of a conditional new trial, additur, or remittitur on the grounds specified in Rule 59(a) and (f), then appellate courts will afford the trial court greater discretion and generally defer to its findings and ruling. To prevail on appeal, the appellant would be required to show the trial court abused its discretion; it will not be enough to show that reasonable evidence supported the jury’s verdict.

  • If the trial court does not provide detailed reasons to support its ruling, the appellate court’s level of deference is reduced and the appellee bears the burden on appeal to convince the appellate court that the trial court did not err in ordering a new trial. To satisfy this burden, the appellee must establish the trial court’s order was supported by substantial evidence and did not constitute an abuse of discretion.

The supreme court observed: “This burden-shifting paradigm should incentivize moving parties to seek, and trial courts to provide, particularized grounds and detailed reasons for ordering a new trial, thus aiding appellate review.”

You can read the supreme court’s full opinion here.