Discretion Given to Jury’s Award of Damages – Couple in Mid-70s Involved in Three Auto Accidents in Three and a Half Weeks

Louisiana’s Supreme Court, in an April 2007 opinion, expounded on the vast discretion an appellate court is to give to a jury’s verdict on review.

From December 2000 to January 2001, Thurman and Rosemary Kaiser, a married couple in their mid-70s, were involved in three auto accidents – one in Jefferson Parish and two in Orleans Parish. Claims the couple may have had regarding the first and third accidents were settled out of court. However, regarding the second accident, which occurred on January 15, 2001, when the couple’s vehicle was rear-ended by Harry Hardin, the couple filed suit. Prior to trial, Hardin stipulated to liability. He later testified that his vehicle hydroplaned into the back of the plaintiffs’ vehicle, causing the accident. The case proceeded to a jury trial on the issue of damages.

After testimony from plaintiffs and defendant, Dr. Donald French, an orthopedic surgeon who treated both of the Kaisers, Paul Van Hoose, a claim representative of State Farm, Dr. Wendy Jamison, a neurologist who treated Mrs. Kaiser, and Dr. Jeffrey Sketchler, an orthopedic surgeon who treated both of the Kaisers, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding Mr. Kaiser $6,500 in total damages, including damages for past and future medical expenses as well as general damages, and awarding Mrs. Kaiser $20,000 in total damages for past and future medical expenses as well as general damages.

Though the jury’s verdict was in favor of the plaintiffs, they moved for a new trial, which was denied. They then appealed, seeking review of the damages awarded. Louisiana’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal amended the judgment, and increased both plaintiffs’ damages. Defendant Hardin then filed for certiorari with the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which was granted.

The Supreme Court began by discussing the standard of appellate review that the Fourth Circuit should have used when evaluating a jury’s award of damages.

General Damages
The Court first focused on general damages, which are damages that cannot be definitely measured in monetary terms. They involve mental or physical pain or suffering, inconvenience, the loss of intellectual gratification or physical enjoyment, or other losses of life or life-style.

The Court provided that in reviewing an award of general damages, vast discretion is accorded to the trier of fact, in this case, the jury. This vast discretion is such that an appellate court should rarely disturb an award of general damages. The role of the appellate court in reviewing general damage awards is not to decide what it considers to be an appropriate award, but rather to review the exercise of discretion by the trier of fact. The inquiry is whether the trier of fact abused its discretion in assessing the amount of damages.

The jury awarded Mr. Kaiser the amount of $3,500 in general damages and Mrs. Kaiser the amount of $13,300. The court of appeal increased both of these amounts to $30,000, pointing to the testimony of doctors French and Sketchler, who both testified that it would be unusual to not have experienced some degree of pain at the time of the accident, and the appellate court’s own observation that “[i]t is not a stretch to take notice that even a minor injury to an elderly person could prove to be relatively substantial.”

However, the Supreme Court, based on its review of the record, found that the jury’s awards did not represent an abuse of discretion. The Court noted that though the medical testimony revealed that both of the Kaisers suffered medical injuries, the only evidence connecting the injuries to the second auto accident as opposed to the first, or third, or some other pre-existing condition, was their own testimony.

Special Damages

The Supreme Court then focused on the award of special damages, which are those that have a ready market value. These include amounts such as those for past and future medical expenses and lost wages. The Court provided that in reviewing a jury’s factual conclusions regarding special damages, an appellate court must satisfy a two-step process: 1) there must be no reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s conclusions, and 2) the finding must be clearly wrong.

The jury awarded Mr. Kaiser $1,500 for past medical expenses, and the appellate court increased that amount to $4,180.50. The jury awarded Mrs. Kaiser past medical expenses in the amount of $3,500, and the appellate court increased this amount to $7,734.86.

However, after the Supreme Court’s review of the record, medical testimony indicated that Mrs. Kaiser had suffered a stroke, and that both of the Kaisers had age-related degenerative changes, which pre-dated the second auto accident.

Considering all the evidence, the Supreme Court concluded that there was a reasonable factual basis for the jury’s finding that only part of the medical expenses claimed by the plaintiffs were attributable to the second accident.

To conclude, the Supreme Court held that the jury’s general damage award did not represent an abuse of the jury’s vast discretion and that the jury’s award of special damages was consistent with its factual findings. The court of appeal erred in disturbing the awards, and the judgment of the trial court was to be reinstated.