American Power Products, Inc. v. CSK Auto, Inc. – 2/5/2016

February 12, 2016

Arizona Supreme Court holds that an evidentiary hearing is not required in the context of a motion for new trial based on an improper ex parte communication where there is no factual dispute regarding the communication.

American Power Products sued CSK for breach of contract.  After a lengthy and complex trial, the jury deliberated for less than three hours and returned a 6-2 verdict for American, awarding only a fraction of American’s requested damages.  American hired an investigator to interview the jurors, resulting in an affidavit attesting that during the deliberations, a juror asked the bailiff how long deliberations typically lasted.  The bailiff allegedly responded that “an hour or two should be plenty.”

American filed a motion for a new trial, requesting at a minimum an evidentiary hearing to ascertain whether the bailiff’s communications were improper and prejudicial.  The trial court considered the affidavit, the accuracy of which was not disputed by CSK, but denied the motion without holding an evidentiary hearing.  The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case, holding that the trial court erred in not holding an evidentiary hearing because it could not determine from the record how the bailiff’s comment was interpreted by the jurors and that prejudice should therefore have been presumed.

The Supreme Court reversed, noting that an evidentiary hearing is only required when there are significant questions regarding what occurred, the credibility of the affiant, or whether the facts alleged in the affidavit, if taken as true, would provide grounds for granting the motion.  Because there was no factual dispute regarding the bailiff’s comments, the Court held that the trial court was not required to hold an evidentiary hearing.  Turning to the issue of prejudice, the Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying American’s motion for a new trial because the bailiff’s comment would not have been prejudicial to the hypothetical average juror.  The Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to consider other issues raised but not decided on appeal.

Justice Brutinel authored the unanimous opinion of the Court.