1st Circuit Court of Appeal Panel Affirms Additur and Assessment of Fault in Rear-End Collision Case

In a recent unpublished opinion, a panel of the Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court’s award of additur in a personal injury lawsuit stemming from a low-speed rear-end automobile accident occurring in Terrebonne Parish in October 2005. The plaintiff sued for damages for personal injuries, medical expenses, and loss of wages, as well as loss of consortium for his wife and their two minor children. The jury returned a unanimous verdict allocating 70% of the fault to defendants, a towing company, its driver, and the truck’s insurer. They awarded damages to plaintiff and his family for the following: past physical pain and suffering, physical disability, impairment, and inconvenience, the effect of plaintiff’s injuries and inconvenience on the normal pursuits and pleasures of life, loss of past income, impairment of future earning capacity, past medical expenses, and loss of consortium.

In this matter, plaintiffs filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or Alternatively for a New Trial and/or Additur as to both the allocation of fault and the amount of damages. After a hearing, the trial court granted plaintiffs’ motion for additur and increased the general damages award (which includes past physical pain and suffering, physical disability and impairment, the effect of the injuries and inconvenience, mental anguish, and future pain and suffering) from $28,000 to $100,000 and otherwise denied the motion. The defendants in the case appealed the decision, asserting that the jury did not abuse its discretion in awarding $28,000 (which was determined to be the case when the award was increased) in general damages and that the trial court abused its discretion by increasing the general damages award to $100,000. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, asserted that the additur was improperly low, the jury erred in its allocation of fault and damages, the trial court should have granted JNOV, and that the jury’s decision was a “compromise” or “quotient jury” verdict. Other procedural deficiencies were noted and eventually corrected.

The main issues upon appeal were: 1) whether the jury was unreasonable in allocating fault 70%-30% between the defendants and plaintiff, 2) whether a general damages award of $28,000 was unreasonably low and whether the trial court’s resulting additur to $100,000 was improper, 3) whether the trial court erred in refusing to grant JNOV, and 4) whether the jury compromised its damage awards and did not fully deliberate on all of the issues.

The question of percentages of liability is a factual determination that cannot be overturned unless an appellate court can find from the record that a reasonable factual basis does not exist for the finding and that the record establishes that the finding is clearly wrong. There is a presumption in Louisiana that the following motorist in a rear-end collision is at fault. In this case, however, there was conflicting testimony about whether plaintiff remained stopped the whole time or if he instead stopped, moved forward, and then stopped again. Both the trial court and appellate court were unable to find that the jury acted unreasonably in its allocation of fault.

When a jury awards a damages amount that is less than the lowest reasonable amount, additur becomes proper. Here, the jury awarded nothing for mental anguish or future pain and suffering, which the trial court viewed as unreasonably low given the pain and suffering associated with the surgery and medication needed to correct two disc ruptures. Plaintiff’s doctors also testified that the plaintiff’s neck would never be the same again and plaintiff testified that he was still in pain but worked in spite of it. Because the trial court found that a general damages award of $28,000 was unreasonable, it had the discretion to raise the award, but only to the lowest reasonable amount. Any further award is an abuse of the trial judge’s discretion.

In order to grant JNOV, which is a directed verdict terminating the action without resubmission to another jury, a trial court must find that a verdict is not supported by any substantial evidence. Based on its review of the record, the 1st Circuit panel could not conclude that the evidence pointed so strongly in favor of plaintiffs that its verdict as to the issues other than damages was unreasonable. It therefore affirmed the trial court’s judgment in that respect.

Lastly, the plaintiffs claimed that because the jury responded unanimously to all answers to the jury interrogatories, that indicated a decision of consensus and/or quotient (averaging each juror’s proposed damage award) rather than a carefully considered verdict. However, neither the trial court nor appellate court could find any evidence indicating that the jury verdict was a quotient verdict.

While much of this is complicated, the issues presented are a great indicator of how complex legal matters can be and the importance of an attorney that can help you receive the award you deserve.