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Children may get nothing from wrongful death

Must a jury award damages to the adult children of a man who died from medical malpractice when the evidence of a loving relationship is uncontroverted?

The Arizona Supreme Court decided Friday that a jury’s award of zero damages under such circumstances does not necessarily require a new trial.

Jerome Walsh died from an infected replacement heart valve in 2004. An Arizona jury decided that a Florence, Ariz. cardiology practice was liable for wrongful death based on its doctors’ failure to diagnose and treat the infection. The jury awarded Jerome’s wife Elizabeth $1 million.

Jerome’s four adult children were also claimants in the wrongful death case, but the jury entered a “0” on the verdict form in the spaces designated for each child’s damages.

The Walsh children asked for a new trial on damages, arguing that the jury had obviously disregarded their testimony that they enjoyed a warm relationship with their father and experienced loss by his death. The children’s testimony was uncontested by the defense.

The trial court agreed that the verdict was “internally inconsistent and not responsive” because “the liability finding required an award at least of uncontroverted damages.” But the lower court denied the motion for a new trial, concluding that the children had waived the issue by not objecting to the inconsistent verdict before the jury was discharged.

Before the Arizona Supreme Court, the Walsh children argued that they were entitled to a new trial as a matter of law given that the testimony about their close, loving relationship with their father was uncontested.

But the court noted that, unlike a common-law negligence claim, damages are not an essential element of a statutory wrongful death claim. Because under Arizona’s wrongful death statute a jury may award whatever amount “it deems fair and just,” the court explained that a jury is not statutorily required to award any compensation.

In that light, the state supreme court concluded that the jury’s award of zero damages to the Walsh children was not necessarily inconsistent with the evidence:

In this case, the jury might have accepted the children’s testimony about their loss, but nonetheless decided, given all the circumstances, that awarding no damages was “fair and just.” Moreover, the children’s damage claims are based solely on their own testimony. The children are interested witnesses, and the jury may thus have discounted their testimony on that ground. The jury verdict awarding no damages to the children was not impermissible as a matter of law.

Fortunately for the Walsh children, this conclusion did not end their case. The Arizona Supreme Court went on to decide that the children had not waived their right to challenge the jury’s verdict and that the trial court should have addressed the merits of their motion.

So the state high court remanded the case for the lower court to consider, in the first instance, whether the award of zero damages was insufficient or not justified by the evidence. (Walsh v. Advanced Cardiac Specialists Chartered)

– Pat Murphy


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