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Ahmad v. State

Court of Appeals of Arizona, First Division

November 13, 2018

SHUJA SAYED AHMAD and MARGARET S. AHMAD, surviving parents of ALEXANDER SAYED AHMAD, deceased, Plaintiffs/Appellants,
v.
STATE OF ARIZONA, a body politic, Defendant/Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court in Maricopa County No. CV2008-030707 The Honorable David O. Cunanan, Judge.

          Treon & Aguirre, PLLC, Phoenix By Richard T. Treon Treon & Shook, PLLC, Phoenix By Daniel B. Treon Co-Counsel for Plaintiffs/Appellants

          Arizona Attorney General's Office, Tucson By Robert R. McCright Counsel for Defendant/Appellee

          Presiding Judge Peter B. Swann delivered the opinion of the court, in which Judge Lawrence F. Winthrop and Chief Judge Samuel A. Thumma joined.

          OPINION

          SWANN, JUDGE.

         ¶1 This is an appeal from an order of remittitur and conditional new trial on the jury's damages award in a wrongful death action. We reversed and remanded in Ahmad v. State ("Ahmad I"), 240 Ariz. 380 (App. 2016). The supreme court vacated our decision in Ahmad I and remanded the case to us for reconsideration in view of Soto v. Sacco, 242 Ariz. 474 (2017). Applying the law of remittitur as articulated in Soto, we again reverse because the superior court failed to state with particularity the grounds for its order, and the record does not reveal substantial evidence to support the order. We remand for entry of judgment on the jury's verdict.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2 During a pursuit by state and city law enforcement, a criminal suspect's vehicle struck and killed Shuja and Margaret Ahmad's son, Alex. The Ahmads brought a wrongful death action against the state on the theory that the pursuit was unnecessary and dispatchers failed to communicate essential information.

         ¶3 The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Ahmads, awarding them $30 million in damages and finding the state 5% at fault for Alex's death. The state moved for a remittitur or a new trial on damages. The state argued that the jury's award included unavailable punitive and compensatory damages. The superior court granted the state's motion, reducing the damages award to $10 million, thereby reducing the state's responsibility from $1.5 million to $500, 000, and granted a conditional new trial on damages only. The court held:

While courts generally loathe to alter a jury award, Rule 59 of the Arizona Rules of Civil Procedure does permit a verdict, decision, or judgment to be vacated and a new trial granted if a damages award is excessive or insufficient. Based upon the evidence presented at trial and the damages recoverable in this action, the Court finds that the thirty million dollar award was excessive. Although the award by the jury was excessive, the Court acknowledges the findings of the jury. Based upon the evidence presented at trial, the Court finds that the reasonable value of damages is ten million dollars. Although this amount is on the high side of a reasonable and just damages amount, based upon the facts and law in this case and in deference to the jury's damages decision, the Court finds this amount appropriate.

         ¶4 The court denied the Ahmads' motion for a complete new trial on all issues and their motion for reconsideration, and, because the Ahmads declined to accept the reduced damages amount, ultimately ordered a new trial on damages. The Ahmads timely appealed, and we reversed and remanded in Ahmad I. We now reconsider that decision under Soto.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶5 Ariz. R. Civ. P. ("Rule") 59 authorizes the superior court, when it finds the jury's damages award excessive, to grant a new trial conditioned on the adversely affected party's rejection of a reduced damages award. Rule 59(f)(1)(A).[1] As Soto held, the court thereby "plays a role akin to a 'thirteenth juror' (a ninth juror in a civil case)"[2] and serves the "indispensable function" of acting as "the primary buffer against unjust verdicts." 242 Ariz. at 478, ¶ 8 (citation omitted); see State v. Fischer, 242 Ariz. 44 (2017) (discussing consideration of motions for new trial by the superior court and on appeal). But the court "should be circumspect in interfering with a jury verdict by carefully and sparingly exercising its discretion to reduce . . . a jury's damage award." Soto, 242 Ariz. at 477-78, ¶ 7. The court "may not simply substitute its judgment for the jury's." Id. at 477, ¶ 7. Remittitur is proper only when the court "is firmly convinced" that the verdict "reflects an exaggerated measurement of damages" and "is contrary to the weight of the evidence."[3] Id. at 478, ¶¶ 8-9 (citation omitted).

         ¶6Soto held that the jury has no more discretion in wrongful death than personal injury actions, and that the foregoing remittitur standard is identical in both categories of cases. Id. at 481, ¶¶ 18-19. Soto further held that the superior court must state with particularity the grounds for a remittitur order. Id. at 479, ¶¶ 11-12 (construing materially similar provisions of 2016 version of Rule). To satisfy the particularity requirement, the court must do more than merely quote or paraphrase the Rule-the court must "describe why the jury award is too high or low" in "sufficient detail to apprise the parties and appellate courts of the specific basis for the court's ruling so that they may avoid speculation." Id. at 480, ΒΆΒΆ 13-14. In the absence of ...


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