A recent Arizona Supreme Court ruling could scare away the snowbirds from Arizona (at least for surgeries).
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last week that a jury could award minimal damages to beneficiaries in a wrongful death claim, in this case to the adult children of Jerome Walsh. Mr. Walsh was a snowbird from Minnesota who needed heart surgery. The surgery was performed, but unfortunately the implanted valve caused a fatal infection. The jury agreed that the surgeon was negligent and awarded the decedent’s wife one million dollars. The four children also testified of their "warm relationship" with their father and were awarded the combined total of… zero dollars. The Court recognized that the jury has extraordinary latitude in awarding damages and would not overturn the verdict.
As a wrongful death attorney, I recognize that money does not fill the void caused by the death of a loved one. There is a vacuum that will likely never be filled in this life. But an award of zero is adding insult to injury. The Court extended the reach of a prior ruling in the case of Quinonez v. Andersen, where the jury awarded no damages to a husband of the decedent. However, in the Quinonez case, there was testimony that led the Court to characterize the wife as the husband’s "punching bag." Okay, I get that. No award for the abusing spouse. But no award to children with an uncontested warm relationship? I have to think the jury just didn’t believe the children.
In case you were wondering, zero damage awards have been upheld in the Washington State. In my casual looking, the most relevant case seems to be Wooldridge v. Woolett. In Wooldridge, the Supreme Court held that a jury verdict should be overturned if the verdict was so low as to "indicate passion or prejudice". However, the Court then notes that Wooldridge only had a high school diploma and hadn’t worked or studied much in the four years since and quotes the lower Court of Appeals as saying, "The jury’s complete denial of any general damages is perhaps unusual, but it is indicative of the jury’s determination that if Cliff Wooldridge had lived his savings at the end of his life would have been zero." Wow, that is harsh. Just because his savings could be zero doesn’t mean his life had no value he couldn’t have spent a lot of money over his life. Hadn’t the Court seen Brewster’s Millions? Do they really think that a tree that falls in the forest and no one is there, it doesn’t make sound?
So, should snowbirds have cause for concern? Not really. I’m pretty sure there is more to the story than we can see in the Court’s ruling. I think the true theme of this post is that juries have a lot of power. This is something worth knowing if you are ever facing, or part of, a jury.