Court awaits notice of settlement (January 26, 2022)

BULLHEAD CITY — The settlement between the City of Bullhead City and EPCOR Water Arizona isn’t quite a done deal, but it’s close enough for dismissal of all pending court action involved in the eminent domain proceedings.

The two sides avoided trial by agreeing last week to a $100 million total settlement for the city to take ownership of EPCOR’s Mohave and North Mohave water systems.

The city took over operation of the systems on Sept. 1, 2021, after paying EPCOR $80 million.

The settlement reached earlier this month and approved by both the Bullhead City Council and the EPCOR Board of Directors will require the city to pay EPCOR an additional $20 million.

Mohave County Superior Court Judge Charles W. Gurtler Jr. last week canceled the final pretrial conference ahead of Monday’s scheduled start of a two-week trial, also vacating the trial and ordering that prospective jurors be relieved.

Counsel for the parties notified the court’s judicial assistant of the settlement of the matter, Gurtler wrote in his order. Neither counsel filed a notice of settlement as required by Arizona Rules of Civil Proceedings.

The court considers the matter settled despite the lack of a filing of notice of settlement in light of the communications to the court’s judicial assistant …

It is local practice for the court to place a matter on the dismissal calendar for a period of 30 days upon receipt of a notice of settlement. Counsel for the city has advised the court’s judicial assistant that a stipulated judgment is to be proffered to the court within a few days. The court therefore discerns that there is no need for any additional time on the dismissal calendar to finalize settlement and documentation of the same.

The court order also addressed a request by News West Publishing, parent of the Mohave Valley Daily News, to live-stream the trial, even though the settlement made the matter moot.

News West had asked Gurtler to consider its request because of COVID-19 protocols in place limiting the number of people in courtrooms in the Mohave County courts and because of the historic importance of the case.

There is an administrative order that has been issued with respect to cameras and filming in the courtroom, Gurtler said. “As this was a high profile matter, and given the lack of accessibility to the court given the COVID pandemic, the court was inclined to consider one of two options with respect to providing public access to the jury trial.

The court was inclined to either grant News West Publishing’s request, or alternatively given the need for social distancing and spacing in the courtroom the court was very heavily considering streaming the jury trial on the court’s YouTube site.

Gurtler expanded on the court’s response to COVID-19 in Mohave County.

The court is very pleased with the success of the juror questionnaire, Gurtler said, referring to initial screening that allowed the jury selection process to begin without any jurors having to make a trip to the courtroom in Bullhead City.

During the questionnaire process, counsel from both sides and Gurtler narrowed an 85-juror pool to about two dozen people.

It was the first time that Mohave County had utilized the juror questionnaire in the context of the civil case to narrow down the prospective juror pool, he wrote. “The process proved to be a safe and secure method to ensure that there would be a fair and impartial jury and to protect the prospective jurors, parties, counsel, witnesses and court staff from unnecessary potential exposure to COVID with a large jury pool appearing for the voir dire process.

The court appreciates and commends counsel for working with the court throughout this process. The court always has great concern when it is presiding over a complex jury trial such as this. However, the court’s greatest concern was the prospect that a mistrial would have to be declared if on day four or five a court participant such as a juror notified the court of being positive for COVID. While the juror questionnaire, the hearing to determine excuses for cause and the prospect of bringing prospective jurors into court in small groups rather than one large group substantially reduced the risk of COVID exposure, there were no other measures that could be taken to limit exposure during the actual trial without completing the jury trial remotely.

Counsel on both sides balked at the idea of a remote trial during a remote pretrial conference earlier this month.

Had a mistrial need to be declared, the parties would have been looking at months and months delay in resetting the new trial date, Gurtler added.

He concluded his order with a reminder to both sides to complete the process with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

The court looks forward to receipt of the form of stipulated judgment, he wrote.

Source: Bill McMillen, Mohave Daily News