Soto v. Sacco (7/13/17)

The case holds that an order granting a remittitur or an additur (and conditional new trial) under Rule 59(f) must, as required by Rule 59(i), “specify with particularity the ground or grounds.” (The court uses the subdivision letters from the 2016 version of the rule but the 2017 rule flips them around; we’re using the new ones. When you read the opinion keep in mind – the court does explain it it a footnote – that old (m) is the new (i), while the old (i) is now (f).)

Plaintiff husband broke his arm when the taxi he was riding in had an accident. He sued the driver and the taxi company. When the jury awarded $700+k the trial court found that “excessive and not supported by the evidence” and granted a remittitur. Plaintiffs rejected it and appealed.

The court begins with a long, vague discussion of new trials and remittiturs that it admits “break[s] no new ground.” Perhaps something in the briefing or argument signaled a need for three pages (counting one very long footnote) of hornbook law.

Plaintiffs argued that because of 59(i) a remittitur order has to be more specific. Hancock (App. 1971) said that (i) doesn’t apply to (f) because (f) states its own grounds (damages excessive or insufficient). This opinion rejects Hancock because (1) rules that don’t apply to other rules “circumvent” them and (2) if (i) didn’t apply then its “required” language wouldn’t be. (Think we’re kidding? Read paragraph 12. In fairness, toward the end of the paragraph the court says that the Hancock interpretation is “inconsistent with Rule 59 when read as a whole,” which maybe is right and at least comes closer to logic than anything else in the paragraph.)

How particular must the trial court be in specifying the grounds? It must “describe why the jury award is too high or low.” That helpful bit of information is found amid seven paragraphs of rambling, during which – in order to distinguish a case cited by Plaintiffs –  the court says interesting things about wrongful-death cases. “[W]e reject the notion that § 12-613’s “fair and just” damages provision mandates greater deference to juries in wrongful death cases than in personal injury actions.” There is “no relevant distinction between a jury’s duty to render a “fair and just” damages award in a wrongful death action and its charge to issue an award based upon its ‘good sense and unbiased judgment’ in a personal injury case.” (Though there is one difference, as the court points out in a footnote: an award of $0 is valid in wrongful death.) This will disappoint plaintiffs’ counsel in those cases, and some trial courts, and some Court of Appeals’ judges, who feel that “fair and just” means “carte blanche.” (Did the court do this deliberately? We would normally suspect so but that suggests more civil-law sophistication than the opinion exhibits.)

So Plaintiffs win? No. Reeves (1978; much of this opinion is just a riff on Reeves) says that if the order isn’t particular enough then the burden shifts to the appellee to prove that there were sufficient grounds for the order. The court quickly finds, in a couple of conclusory sentences, that under these facts new trial was not error. Not a great advertisement for its principal holding.

The court then mentions evidence of allegedly-comparable verdicts, which Defendants had presented. “[W]hile such comparable verdict information may be presented to and considered by the trial court, we emphasize that it is only marginally relevant . . .” This criticism is surely deliberate since it is pure dictum.

Remanded for new trial.

(Opinion: Soto v. Sacco)