Soto v. Sacco – 7/13/2017

July 20, 2017

The Arizona Supreme Court holds that a trial court may order a remittitur when the damages are excessive and should explain its reasoning.

A husband and wife were passengers in a taxi that collided with another vehicle.  The jury awarded the husband $700,000 in damages.  The superior court found the verdict excessive and granted a remittitur, reducing the award to $250,000.  The passengers appealed.  The court of appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court granted review to clarify the standard for remittitur.

The Supreme Court urged trial judges to sparingly exercise discretion in modifying a jury’s verdict.  At the same time, it recognized that a trial judge ruling on a motion for a new trial plays a role akin to a “thirteenth juror” (or ninth juror in civil cases) and is the primary buffer against unjust verdicts.  If a damage award is tainted by passion or prejudice or is shockingly or flagrantly outrageous, remittitur is an inadequate remedy; instead the court must order a new trial.  When, however, the verdict merely reflects an exaggerated measure of damages, the court may exercise its discretion to order a remittitur.  The court should be firmly convinced that the verdict is excessive and contrary to the weight of the evidence.

The Supreme Court held (overruling the court of appeals and Hancock v. Linsenmeyer, 15 Ariz. App. 296, 299 (1971)) that when a court orders a remittitur, it should explain why the jury award was too high, pursuant to Ariz. R. Civ. P. 59(m).  When, as here, the trial court does not explain its reasoning, the burden shifts to the appellee to establish that the remittitur is supported by substantial evidence and was not an abuse of discretion.  The Supreme Court affirmed because appellees met that burden.  

The Supreme Court’s decision to affirm was not altered by defendants’ presentation of comparable verdict evidence to the trial court, which may consider such evidence but should accord it only marginal relevance.

The Supreme Court also held that remittitur does not conflict with the right to a jury trial enshrined in the Arizona Constitution.  The Constitution protects the right to a jury trial as it existed before statehood, at which time remittitur was well established.

Justice Lopez authored the opinion of the court.