The appeals court yesterday overturned a jury sentence of $ 12 million for defamation in favor of two plaintiffs against their former patient. The applicants, maxillofacial and dental surgeons, performed cosmetic surgery and facial resurfacing treatments on Petta. Petta has repeatedly and aggressively expressed his dissatisfaction with the outcome. There were some issues with the results which the doctors attempted to correct. In the meantime, the doctor-patient relationship deteriorated and Petta underwent treatment elsewhere. The plaintiffs subsequently refused to continue treating Petta because she screamed, desecrated and requested unauthorized treatment. Nonetheless, the parties signed an agreement that the claimants would perform 3 IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) treatments on Petta, she would not get treatment from unauthorized vendors, and she would refrain from yelling and using profanity. The parties proceeded with the treatment and Petta’s face improved.
On January 3, 2008, the plaintiffs performed a surgical revision of the tip of the nose on Petta, but she remained dissatisfied. Petta filed a formal complaint with the AMB and requested copies of his medical records. Although she was advised by the Complainants’ Office that the files were ready, when she arrived the files were not ready, resulting in a heated verbal exchange. The police were called. In truth, the plaintiffs refused to give the files to Petta because of his AMB complaint. After being ordered to produce the files, the plaintiffs did so, but asked the police to issue a trespass warning to Petta and obtained an injunction against the harassment against Petta.
Petta began posting derogatory statements about doctors on various consumer review websites. The doctors’ lawyer sent Petta two letters urging him to suppress the statements. The plaintiffs eventually sued Petta for libel, among other things, and sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction requiring Petta to delete the posts and directing him to stop posting. A flurry of motions followed, with Petta deleting, then posting, then deleting her posts again. Petta filed a medical battery counterclaim, claiming she had not consented to the scope of the nose surgery. The discord between the parties escalated, with Petta filing numerous complaints against the doctors with various boards and the plaintiffs sending Petta a number of insulting text messages.
Before trial, the court issued summary judgment against Petta on his medical battery counterclaim. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs on libel and other claims in the amount of $ 11 million in compensatory damages and $ 1 million in punitive damages. The trial in the court of first instance recognized that the verdict “was favorable”.
The appeals court reversed, agreeing with Petta that the damages awarded “were totally excessive and not supported by evidence”. The jury had been ordered to award actual damages for damage to the reputation and reputation of the plaintiffs in the community; personal humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress; financial damage to the business, trade, profession or occupation of the applicants; and financial loss caused by any false and defamatory statements. But the evidence of the plaintiffs ‘damages was thin, subjective, and based on the plaintiffs’ vague and conclusive testimony. With respect to special damages, the plaintiffs’ testimony lacked documentary support such as an analysis of business transactions, tax returns or expert testimony. Thus, the plaintiffs’ final statements left the jury to speculate on special damages. Additionally, although the Complainants described their emotional distress, many of Petta’s statements were either true or substantially true, or were mere opinions and did not necessarily misrepresent the Complainants.
The court said the verdict shocked the conscience of the court and was so extreme that it suggested passion, prejudice, error or total disregard for the evidence. The verdict was equivalent to the largest civil jury verdict in Arizona in 2013 and the 13th largest civil verdict in Arizona in the past ten years. And that was nearly four times the verdict in the second-largest libel case. The court ordered a full new trial because liability was not only vigorously contested, but also inextricably linked to the nature of the plaintiffs’ alleged damages. Because the court ordered a new trial, it set aside the amount of punitive damages; but he noted that the evidence – that Petta had engaged in reprehensible conduct designed to damage the plaintiffs’ business and professional reputations and was motivated by an evil spirit – had been sufficient to send the issue of punitive damages to the jury.
Finally, the court set aside the summary judgment against Petta on her medical battery counterclaim, even though she had consented to the nose surgery. She considered that a jury could have concluded that the surgery performed exceeded the scope of this consent.
This is one of the only cases in Arizona, if not the only one to date, in which an appeals court has overturned a jury’s assessment of damages on the grounds that it “shocked the conscience” of the court. . Normally, appellate courts are extremely reluctant to question a jury’s assessment of damages, even when the jury grants more than the lawyers’ claims. Indeed, the court of first instance, after hearing the witnesses and seeing the evidence, is in the best position to determine whether the verdicts are the result of passion or prejudice, and can make this assessment at the new stage. of the trial. Nevertheless, “the ultimate test will always be justice”; and in this case, the court ruled that the plaintiffs’ damages case did not pass this test. While the result is unusual, Petta’s opinion is likely not the start of a trend for appellate courts to question jury awards. Great care was taken by the court to note the usual deference to jury awards and to set out the specific factors that made this case different from the norm.
Read the case notice here.