PHOENIX — The constitutional right of juries to decide how much to award victims in civil lawsuits does not block a judge from overturning their verdict as excessive, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justice John Lopez, writing for the unanimous court, said trial judges “should be circumspect’’ when substituting their judgment for that of the jury that decided how much to award a victim. And he said that power is limited.
“Because a jury plays a vital role in our civil justice system, a trial court may not simply substitute its judgment for the jury’s,’’ Lopez wrote.
He said, though, that judges are in a “unique position’’ to guard against “unjust verdicts.’’ And Lopez said that gives them the right to conclude that an award is not supported by the evidence.
But Lopez said there also is a safeguard: When that happens, the victim is entitled to demand an entirely new trial rather than accept the scaled-back verdict. And that’s what happened here.
The case involves Michael and Julie Soto who were passengers in a taxi driven by Anthony Sacco when it collided with another vehicle.
They Sotos sued Sacco and Discount Cab, for whom he was driving. The defendants admitted liability, with a trial solely to determine damages.
According to court records, Michael suffered multiple fractures to his dominant arm and underwent surgery to permanently implant a plate and screws to stabilize it. The couple testified that he experienced significant pain and emotional distress since the accident, preventing him from participating in physical activities he previously enjoyed.
But his doctor placed no limits on his activities and told him to use his arm normally, using pain as a guide.
His medical bills topped $40,500 but he made no claim for future medical expenses or lost wages.
The Sotos sought $725,000; the defendants suggested something between $90,000 and $120,000. Jurors awarded $700,000 to him and $40,000 to his wife.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Gordon concluded the award to Michael “was excessive and not supported by the evidence,’’ reducing it to $250,000. When the couple declined, Gordon issued an order for a new trial and they appealed.
Lopez pointed out the provision of Arizona Constitution, adopted at statehood in 1912, which says “the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.’’ But he said that does not end the matter.
“We recognize that a trial judge plays a role akin to ... a ninth juror in civil cases when ruling on a motion for new trial, including motions based on excessive or insufficient damages,’’ he wrote.
“A trial judge’s unique position is the primary buffer against unjust verdicts,’’ Lopez explained. “And the trial judge performs an indispensable function without which our system of justice could not hold out the promise of a uniform application of the law.’’
Even then, however, Lopez said that unique position does not translate to absolute power.
“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,’’ he wrote. And he said Gordon did that.
Lopez acknowledged that Gordon, in reducing the verdict, did not spell out exactly why he thought the jury award was too generous. But he said the fact that Soto did not make any claims for future expenses or economic losses was enough to support the trial judge’s conclusion the award was excessive.
There was no immediate comment from the couple’s lawyer.