Walsh v. Advanced Cardiac Specialists Chartered – 5/26/2011

June 1, 2011

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One A Jury May Award Zero Damages To The Plaintiff in A Wrongful Death Suit Even When The Defendant Does Not Contest The Plaintiff’s Testimony.

Jerome Walsh became ill during a trip to Arizona.  He saw several doctors employed by Advanced Cardiac Specialists.  Shortly after returning to his home in Minnesota, Jerome died from a heart infection.  Jerome’s wife and the Walsh children sued Advanced Cardiac Specialists, claiming that the company’s doctors failed to properly diagnose and treat the infection.  At trial, the Walsh children each testified regarding their relationships with their father; this testimony was uncontested.  The jury awarded Mrs. Walsh $1 million in damages but awarded each child zero damages.  After the jury was discharged, the Walsh children moved for a new trial, but the trial court dismissed the children’s motion, concluding that they waived their challenge by failing to raise it before the jury was discharged.  The children appealed.

The children argued that two previous cases – 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) – prohibited a jury from returning a verdict with zero damages in a wrongful death case, thus compelling a new trial. 

In a unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals held that those two cases were wrongly decided, that a jury a verdict of zero damages is a permissible verdict in a statutory wrongful death suit, and that the waiver issue was therefore moot.

In a negligence claim, proof of damages is an “essential element” of the claim: if there are zero damages, then there can be no successful claim.  The wrongful death statute, in contrast, provides that when a person causes the death of another, “the person who . . . would have been liable if death had not ensued shall be liable.”  A.R.S. § 12-611.  The statute further provides that “the jury shall give such damages as it deems fair and just.”  A.R.S. § 12-613.  Thus, reasoned the Court, the wrongful death statute does not make damages an essential element. The jury’s verdict awarding zero damages to each child was therefore proper.

In White and Sedillo, the Court of Appeals reversed after a jury found liability but awarded zero damages.  Like in this case, the plaintiffs in White and Sedillo gave uncontested testimony about their relationships with the decedent.  In split decisions, the Court reversed on the theory that the jury could not give zero damages unless there is “support in the record” to “disregard a witness’s testimony.” 

Siding with the dissents, the Court overruled White and Sedillo.  The Court reasoned that requiring some amount of damages “absent contradictory evidence is legally flawed because” the plaintiff has the burden to prove damages and “a jury is free to disregard the evidence that a plaintiff produces.”  Consistent with the jury’s role in weighing credibility of witnesses, it may disregard the testimony of a witness even if it goes uncontested. 

Judge Barker authored the unanimous opinion; Judges Kessler and Thompson concurred.