We blogged the Court of Appeals’ opinion here; go there for the facts. The Supreme Court vacates that opinion but agrees that a zero award in a wrongful-death case is proper. Since wrongful death is not a common-law claim the common-law rule does not apply; the CA2 cases to the contrary are overruled.
Apparently the children acknowledged that in principle but argued that the jury had ignored uncontradicted evidence of their loving relationship with the deceased. But a jury has great discretion in wrongful death cases and could have discredited the children’s testimony because, for example, of their self-interest. The court also says, though, that “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.” It seems that the jury’s discretion in wrongful death is just about unlimited.
[LATER EDIT 4/15/12] We’ve been asked about an issue in the CA1 opinion that we didn’t mention here and have realized that we should have.
Specialists argued that Walsh waived the issue by not raising it when the jury returned the verdict. The Court of Appeals said that was “moot” and addressed the substance, which we said “puts the cart before the horse.” The Supreme Court, in a footnote, says that the lower court’s mootness comment was correct. So, who’s right?
Though “moot” is not quite the right word, it is logically true that if a zero verdict is not defective then it need not be treated as such (i.e., Walsh didn’t waive anything by not raising the issue at the time). But our comment intended to refer to a matter not of legal logic but of jurisprudence – the question, addressed later in our Court of Appeals blog, of CA1’s approach to the CA2 precedent. The Supreme Court’s approach is understandable but the same can’t be said of CA1. As we blogged, that court “reaches the issue because it wants to,” not because it should have.
This is especially true since our appellate courts have nowadays made a point of referring to Division Two opinions as merely being those of “another panel” of the Court of Appeals (e.g, here and here; if you think these random, meaningless occurrences then please remember not to buy bridges in Brooklyn or answer Nigerian emails). The fact that there even are two divisions, in other words, is a secondary thing we should ignore. But the Court of Appeals in Walsh blithely threw over two decisions from two panels – four different judges – twenty years apart. We’re shown that some panels are nevertheless more equal than others and that decisions from some aren’t really “real” – no matter how many nor how old they are – until they’re confirmed by another. That isn’t a legal system – its legal chaos. It would even be better to admit officially – if its true – that CA2 is considered the minor leagues and counts only until someone in the Valley makes the call. That would at least give us some guidance in trying to tell our clients what the law is.
The Court of Appeals already knows how to handle this problem correctly: Follow the precedent but signal that you do so by obligation rather than agreement. And the Supreme Court is not blameless, since it has made the problem worse by not mentioning it in this opinion.
(link to opinion)